Monthly Archives: November 2013

Missing the Life

The table is set, and our maid is furiously working in the kitchen to finalize the Thanksgiving prep.  Through the embassy my husband secured a turkey, though I told him it was an exception made only for our guests.  I close the glass french doors to the balcony; the sun streaming in on this hot summer day in November is inhospitable and I turn on the air conditioning unit located above our dining room table.  I light the candles, all shades of fall and markedly out of place on this summer day in Buenos Aires, but it is Thanksgiving, and I aim to give our argentine guests an authentic taste of the holiday. I check the time–they will be here soon.

After two bottles of wine and a sampling of everything from the turkey to the stuffing to the pumpkin pie, our argentine guests are laughing and playing with the baby on the floor while our toddler sidles up to their teenage son, curious about the smartphone he holds.  The argentine general reaches for the baby and brings him to his lap, cooing and beaming, wishing aloud for a grand baby of his own.

His wife leans toward me.  “Look at this,” she says with a loving smile, “he can’t keep his hands off babies.” She links her arm through mine and launches into a story, one of many she keeps handy, about her husband and his weakness for kids.

She heads toward the kitchen before they go to thank our maid for her efforts and delicious cooking, and just before they exit our apartment and slide into the elevator, doles out the biggest of hugs.

“Thank you,” she looks me square in the eye, “this has been the most lovely experience we’ve ever had.  Thank you for showing us this tradition of family and love.”

“Just a typical Thanksgiving full of screaming kids and too much to drink!” I laugh and blow her a kiss as the elevator closes and we hear them descend, knowing this is my last scene of the day.  The boys, napping, and the maid cleaning up–the perks of diplomatic life–allow my husband and I a moment alone.

“Do you think they suspected anything?” I ask him as we sit in the living room, overlooking the park four stories below, alive with argentines and their beloved dogs in the summer sun, while the remnants of the meal lay scattered about the dining room table, awaiting their second showing.

“I don’t think so,” he leans back in his chair, a fresh glass of wine in hand, wistful.

 

I remember the toast he gave as he started off the meal, awkwardly attempting to explain Thanksgiving to our guests, the argentine general and his wife and son, and ending with a toast to those things for which we are thankful.  His eyes stall on me as he expresses his gratitude for his family, and I know he is remembering our visit to Hospital Aleman yesterday, the news, the waiting room, crowded, solemn.  Remembering the follow up trip to Starbucks as we digested the information: cancer in the lymph node, at least one, possibly more.  A follow up with the surgical team scheduled.  A breakdown in the back of the coffee shop, a fellow patron staring while desperately trying to seem uninterested, a second trip to the napkin holders to dry my unyielding tears.  He stops mid-sentence during his monologue, trying to compose himself, finishing the toast with strength and poise.  I glance at our guests, managing a weak smile.  I hold my breath, and they do not notice.  But if they look closely, I’m sure they’ll see his cancer all over my face.

***

It’s a date I always remember.  The birthday of my high school best friend; I remember the year I made her a cake and she told me it was her favorite gift.  No matter the year, no matter that the depth of our friendship has dramatically changed, I always remember.

This year, however, I remember differently.

Driving in the car with my husband, the boys in the backseat, we are on our way to dinner, to the home of friends who now live in DC but once lived with us in Buenos Aires.  It’s dark, even though it’s early.  I glance at my iphone before heading inside and notice the date: November 23.  But tonight, I don’t remember my high school friend and her inclination for fast, tight hugs and high pitched squeals.  Tonight I remember November 23 one year ago, in the dermatologist’s office in Buenos Aires.  A seemingly ordinary Wednesday.  Waiting in a crowded room with other patients, all looking just as anxious, as I resist the urge to vomit in the nearby bathroom.  It will be a false alarm, I tell myself.  We are called by the doctor into her office, separated from the waiting room by paper thin walls.  I feel the eyes of all the other patients burning into my back as we wait, holding our breath.

It’s cancer, she says.

An hour later we are seated at the Starbucks across from Hospital Aleman in downtown Buenos Aires, trying to make sense of the spanish phrases, make sure we understood, make sure there was no possible way that my interpretation was wrong.  An hour after that, I am home in our downtown apartment, in the arms of our maid, crying in the kitchen.  Having lost her husband to cancer five years earlier, she is all too familiar with my fears.

“Have faith,” she says, looking at me through sad brown eyes, before escaping into the laundry room.

“Should I cancel Thanksgiving?” I ask my husband as I pick up the toys scattered in the living room, moving books back to their shelves, righting pillows, folding blankets, trying to put my life back together.

“No,” he says without missing a beat, “why would we do that?  Besides, everything’s ready.  And it’ll be fun.”

But neither of us are convinced.

***

Our friend’s home is a treasure trove of reminders of their life in Argentina–wild game hung from the wall, antique maps framed in the entryway, cow-hide rugs warming the dark wood floors.  The welcome is warm and the kids whirl themselves into a frenzy of toys and games of chase as the adults take turns watching and drinking and holding the baby.  While our hostess busies herself in the kitchen, I settle in with an argentine red and her birthday gift, a picture book of their time as a family in Argentina–a highlight reel of their adventures, their travel, their once-in-a-lifetime memories made.  And as I look at them, posed in front of glaciers, standing at the Chile/Argentine border, drinking Malbecs at estancias, riding argentine horses, I feel something I haven’t in a while: longing, an ache, and the sting of envy.  I see in this book what our life should have looked like.  I see the memories we should have made.  I close the book.

On our way home, I ask my husband if he remembers which day he was diagnosed.  It’s  not a fair question; I know it was a year ago today.  And I can’t decide if he is truthful when he replies that he’s not really sure.  We are both playing chicken, seeing who will blink first.

“I miss Argentina,” I say after he reveals nothing, “I buried it somewhere down deep, and tonight it all came up to the surface.”

A phone call to our dermatologist friend, a Thanksgiving meal, and three days later, our life in Argentina is over after only six months.

“I know,” he says with a side glance as he turns on his blinker and slows at the light, one more turn before we’re at our DC townhouse.  “Did you see their book?  I can’t believe all the things we’ve missed.”

***

The boys sleepily fill up on Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch–a full day of romping with cousins and friends has left them utterly exhausted.  My husband steps into our galley kitchen but I intercept him with a tight squeeze and he doesn’t let go, burying himself in my shoulder.  This morning his rash was back–my pits are the pits!, he puns–and this afternoon his leg has swollen.  The cancer is gone, yet somehow it lingers, always lingers.  We sway back and forth to music only we hear, and I catch our oldest son staring at us over his sandwich.  I wink at him, toss him a smile.

He stares silently for a few seconds, elbows resting on the rustic dining table that he’s covered with stains, then drops his sandwich, a smile spreading across his rosy cheeks.  “You guys look like you’re married!” he proclaims, pointing out our embrace, getting his sidekick to look our way, his face covered in jelly.

We laugh but my husband still doesn’t let go.  My toddler, growing up, already learning what love looks like.

“Well that’s good, because we are!” I laugh, and breathe in the scene–two beautiful towheaded boys, a warm, sunlit home, the boys’ artwork taped to every available wall.  They have lost interest in us and begin shouting at each other, each one mimicking the other with growing volume until they end the game in a fit of giggles.

I am still wrapped in the embrace of the man I married only four years ago, and from this vantage point it’s pretty clear:  we actually haven’t missed a thing.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Thousand Paper Cranes

The rain falls sporadically in large drops on formal wear and the wind theatrically blows small yellow leaves through the courtyard of the textile museum as we watch the couple in front of us–she in flowing ivory, he in a crisp suit–read their vows. Occasionally she sneaks a glance at the looming clouds, wondering whether they will merely threaten or unleash atop her unprepared guests. My husband, on my left, holds my hand and traces the ridges of my knuckles with his thumb, then plays with my engagement ring. I know he is remembering us.

Moments earlier, an unconventional reading takes place, one chosen from Story Corp. It is an interview between a wife and her husband battling an aggressive form of cancer. At the mention of the word I immediately become nauseated. Keep it together, I tell myself, not now. I move my eyes from the two gifted story tellers at the microphone to the small white pebbles forming the aisle to my right, trying to focus on them instead of the emotionally driven story coursing its way through the microphone and into the crowd. My husband clears his throat, shifts subtly in his seat. My right hand clenches my purse while my left, still wrapped safely in his, remains composed. Amazing, I think, that my subconscious will throw all my anxiety and fear into the right side of my body–the solitary part–, allowing my husband to believe I am, at least outwardly, unaffected. When the reading is over, I notice I am sweating despite the rapid drop in temperature and cool fall breeze. A deep breath. It’s over.

The couple before us beams at each other as they are pronounced husband and wife, and the crowd collectively beams back. We stand and applaud at the union we’ve just witnessed, iphones poised for the perfect shot. As they exit the ceremony by way of the pebbled garden path, a breeze blows her dress and it billows softly, perfectly, before she is lifted into the air by her new husband. I know she feels weightless in his arms, buoyed by love and the feeling that the world, for this moment, has stopped spinning–just for them.

After a brisk cocktail hour beneath a setting November sun and a canopy of old elm trees, we are ushered into an intimate tent adorned with soft lights, a small dance floor and the cozy feel of family. After several glasses of wine, the couple seated beside us are our new best friends, and the wife my unwitting confidant. The bride graces us with her presence and we swoon, adoring her dress, the wedding, the music. She graciously fawns over us, telling us what amazing women we are, how she knew we’d hit it off. Then, to me, she says, “I am so happy you live here!”, and for a second–a split second–I have forgotten the life-changing event that brought us back to DC.  “Me too!” I smile back, grabbing her hands in mine. And for that split second I mean it, not because it’s a great place to be if we can’t be in Buenos Aires, not because it’s a great place to receive cancer treatments, but because it’s a place full of people we love. It’s a place brimming with friends we have yet to meet. For a split second, it is simply a wonderful place to live.

But as she leaves, beckoned by the neighboring table, she steals the excitement, and I feel the sincerity draining out of me. I return to my seat, reach for the champagne. I remember now. I turn to my new friend, and her soft brown eyes seem so trustworthy that suddenly I am blurting out our dirty little secret.

“My husband was diagnosed with cancer last year, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re back in DC and not in Argentina.”

She looks at me without blinking. It seems as though she’s stopped breathing.  And just as suddenly as my outburst, the DJ speaks.

“Will the happy couple please come to the dance floor for their first dance?”

The intimate crowd cheers and applauds, encouraging the newlyweds. My new friend continues to stare, and though I shift my gaze back and forth from the dance floor to her, “look,” my eyes say, “this is what we’re doing now, we’re watching them,” she doesn’t break her gaze. Finally, she begins to nod slowly, then turns her face toward the dance, toward happiness. With her back to me, I chastise myself for my impulsiveness. I question my sanity. I have another drink. The bride is ethereal as she dances with her husband, the first dance of their married life. He accompanies her as every groom should, like the luckiest man on earth, happy to simply bask in the warmth of her smile. A lift straight out of the movies has the crowd emoting and clapping, her dress swirling around and around–a photographer’s dream shot. The iphones come out, blocking the view. The dance is over and they are breathless and weightless, floating back to their table, lost in the crowd.

My new friend turns back to me. “I’m so sorry,” I stammer, “I had no business doing that to you. You didn’t need to know that,” though I know it can never be unsaid. I feel my husband at my back but don’t turn around; I’ve betrayed him, his secret. Tonight, seated among strangers, he was healthy. No one knew. No one needed to.

“I work with survivors of trauma,” she starts, “I understand your need to share your story. Trust me, you are not the first person to say something like that.” Her words fight against the eighties music montage thumping against the dance floor. I smile at her, wondering how to get out of the conversation that I began, and scan the crowd, hoping to find a way out. My eyes catch on the hanging mobile over the dance floor–a thousand origami paper cranes. All different colors, they twirl softly in the whisps of night air that manage to crash the party. A nod to the groom’s Chinese heritage, the cranes swaying over the dancing wedding guests symbolize good fortune, happiness and prosperity, a proper wedding wish. But Japanese culture celebrates the legend of senbazuru, where folding a thousand paper cranes grants one recovery from an illness and a lifetime of health. Though I doubt the bride included the cranes for us, I can’t help but hope someone is wishing for my husband’s lifetime of health.

A familiar song comes on. “Let’s go!” I rise and the guests at our table follow my lead, and we dance in a circle around the newlyweds under the promise of a thousand paper cranes.

A few hours later, the couple dashes out of the textile museum’s front steps through a sparkling send off on to their next destination. They leave in a bubble of joy and pleasure and we bask in their wake as they climb into their getaway car. Once they’re gone, our sparklers fizzle out and the guests hold nothing but metal sticks. We throw them into ash trays, say our goodbyes, and my husband and I depart for home. My new friend waves goodbye and promises we’ll see them again soon. And in spite of my penchant for over-sharing, I believe her.

In bed that night, my body still drowning in champagne, my husband holds me. He pushes a piece of hair from my forehead, then leans down to kiss me. “Do you think they know what those vows meant?” he asks as he settles back against his pillows, covering us both up with the warm comforter.

“The only thing that matters is us,” I hear them both say, staring into each others eyes and forgetting their guests, and I am amazed that they have both written the same line in their vows. And I am equally amazed by the accuracy of the sentence, especially coming from a couple on the precipice of their union.  They already have marriage all figured out.

“No,” I answer my husband, “I don’t think they know what their vows actually mean. But,” I tilt my face up to his, “neither did we.”

My mind slips back to a few evenings before, where my husband, afraid for so long, finally let go.

“I read that email, did you read it?” he asks me in the basement where we spend our evenings side by side on the couch once the boys are in bed. I know immediately he is referring to the email from a friend who emailed with research about the longest study of Ipi. An optimistic note, an email to show that his drug has been shown to prolong life–prolong life–for ten years.

“No,” I answer, looking anywhere but his face, “I just couldn’t.”

“Well, I did, and it scared the shit out of me,” he drops his head so I can’t see his tears, but his voice catches and his body, so strong for so long, yields to the fear he has buried deep down. I wrap him in my arms, trying to protect him from studies with ten to fifteen years of life extension as their probable outcomes. I cushion his weight and he drapes himself over me, his head buried deep in my shoulder, his hands gripping my back in anguish, in fear. It’s not enough. Ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, it will not be enough.

A lifetime. Great grand babies. One hundred years. Maybe that would be enough.

No, I think, our vows did not prepare me for this.

The champagne is manifesting now in thirst and the beginnings of a headache. I reach over my husband to the nightstand for a sip of water. I settle back in by his side, remembering the cranes dangling like a wish over the wedded couple. As I curl myself up into him, just under his arm, one leg draped over his, I hope they never know the full weight of their wedding vows. I close my eyes and feel sleep wash over me, slowly drowning wedding vows and breakdowns and the need to share my traumatic secrets. And right before the last wave of sleep covers me completely, I wish for them a lifetime of health.

And one thousand cranes.

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