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Andean Birds and Airport Dances: Santiago Part I

We regard each other through an old pane of glass; me on one side, sipping wine and finishing lunch, he on the other, flitting from place to place searching for crumbs, stopping sporadically to assess me, not entirely trusting the glass between us. He is the Andean equivalent of a sparrow–a dime a dozen–but as I watch him more closely, limping along in search of food as he hobbles on one foot, I feel sorry for this wounded bird. He flies away abruptly, in tandem with another. Soon it becomes a flock, and the one-footed bird soars higher than the rest up into the Andes without restriction or hesitation. I smile for him, no longer feeling sorry.

“Did you see that bird?” I ask my husband, returning my attention to our lunch–an Argentine buffet in a large dining room filled with bathrobe-clad thermal bathers. He smiles sheepishly as he looks up from his plate with a mouthful of food, shaking his head no.

I remember last night, him showing me the raised red rash, three inches long, on the inside of his thigh. With no lymph nodes in his right groin, his internal filtration system is damaged, and excessive swelling a constant battle waged. Red rashes that appear on his leg on a ten-day South American excursion become cause for alarm, reminding him that he was sick, that he is the unfortunate but lifetime owner of this indiscriminate disease. And it is a reminder to me–perched on the side of the bed, wondering how close we are to the hospital–that nothing in our life will ever be the same.

In Santiago, after too many pisco sours and double whiskeys, an old friend of mine leans back in the hotel lounge chair, looking at my husband with wisdom and a dash of pity.

“I’m so glad you’re healthy, man.” He leans forward and clinks glasses with my husband, sealing their new but life-long friendship. And now, we are all acutely aware of how long–or short–that lifetime can be.

Two days later, in Buenos Aires, in front of our old apartment, pressing our noses to the glass, we wonder who is working the door today. A familiar face rushes toward us from inside.

“I can’t believe it!” our old doorman cries as he grabs my husband by the shoulders, affirming that he is, in fact, real. “You’re here! You’re healthy! Thank God!”

Tears stream down his cheeks as he tries in vain to recover from the shock at seeing my husband again–alive. A tenant we don’t recognize exits the elevator off to our right, hesitating–realizing he’s interrupted something deeply personal–but then moves by us.

“We’ve really missed you around here,” our doorman says, wiping his face. I watch my husband as he struggles to speak, blinking back tears. He looks down at his feet for just a second, and, jaw clenched, he looks back up.

“It’s great to be back,” he finally manages.

“What about the bird?” my husband asks me, bringing me back to the brunch at the thermal mud bath in the argentine side of the Andes. He pauses to watch me, a playful smile on his face, before taking a sip of Malbec, relishing the view of mist over mountains, leaning back in his chair. He used the magic mud on his palms–constantly cracked and splitting and rough since the start of his clinical trial–and out of habit he rubs his hands together now.

I pick up my glass and shake my head, laughing. “Never mind,” I smile. We toast.

***
We walk through the terminal, the sun setting on our vacation as it sinks behind the Andes. Beyond our gate we see the familiar green glow of the Starbucks sign and walk toward it–a reflex. As we approach, a familiar melody floats from the kiosk–a song from our wedding. Without a word, he pulls me in and we dance in the middle of it all while Ray LaMontagne serenades: You are the best thing. I imagine travelers moving around us, beyond us, some amused, smiling as they stop for a moment. But I don’t see them. I am buried in his neck, I am feeling the soft skin of his palm. I am breathing in his breath, his life.

We are about to order a coffee, about to board a plane, return to our life on the run from cancer. But now, now we sway in tiny circles, and the world waits.

And as I lay my head against his chest and gaze out the big picture window, for a brief moment, just before our dancing circles turn me away, I swear I can see a flock of birds rising high above the Andes, the fading light catching on their wings.

Counting Buoys

I rinse the shampoo out of my hair and feel the salt water, the ocean breeze, the warm sand, slipping away with it. Our summer vacation is over and our life is as it was before–fast, intentional, focused. As I let the warm water wash over me, allowing life to move forward even though I wish my spirit to remain in the waves, I remember our wine-induced conversation the last night of our vacation. We sit on the dimly lit front porch, screened-in but, after years of use, the screens have rolled away from their frames, inviting small, unwanted guests to our party of two. My husband sits across the glass table from me, reclined in a well worn patio seat, red wine in hand. He’s had too much to drink, and so have I. In his white shirt, his linen pants, he looks the part, and wears it well.

The question fell from my lips before I could stop it, encouraged by too much alcohol and too little inhibition. This vacation, so blissfully free of cancer, is about to take a turn.

“Do you think it’ll come back?” I cringe but it’s too late, the words are spoken and hang in the air between us. I pray for an ocean breeze to sweep them away but the pines are too thick. He has to answer.

Reflecting, looking into his glass, one hand behind his head while the other swirls the red liquid; he looks happy. A week of playing in the surf, laughing, half-naked babies and beach breeze-induced sleep agrees with him. He takes a swallow, leaving the tiniest bit left in his glass, then clears his throat.

“I hope it doesn’t,” he starts, softly. “But, if it does, I’m not so sure I want to know about it.” He’s confident now, sitting up a bit more. “If it comes back, it’ll come back somewhere bad, and it’ll probably be stage IV. And then I’d have to find a treatment that would give me maybe five years to live instead of four, or something like that. So, what’s that they say? ‘Ignorance is bliss’? I just want to live a happy life. I don’t want to know.”

He finishes the rest of the glass and gives me a half-smile, pleased with his answer. And I am silent only because I know whatever I say next will be potent. I want to shake him, to scream “What about US? Don’t you want to know for us?”

Instead I feign a lighthearted laugh and say, “Well, of course you’ll find out, you’re on a trial. And that’s what they do, they monitor you.” I take a sip and then I add, “and by the way, if it comes back, we’ll get rid of it, just like the first time”. Somehow, the words didn’t come out as convincingly as I’d hoped.

I finish my glass and we are enveloped in silence. Not the awkward kind; the reflective kind. I am learning about him, still. And I understand him. I think back to the last few days on the beach. The secluded beach town, exceptional only in its unexceptional nature. Victorian homes from the 1920s, virtually vacant beaches, low tide stretching out for hundreds of yards, warm water lapping at baby toes. The perfect getaway for a family needing to get away.

We arrive on Monday afternoon and begin to unload the car and explore the beach house. It is old, but functional, a little musty, with mismatched furniture and a large front porch. It needs love, but it is footsteps from the ocean and expansive enough for two sets of tiny feet to run without impediments, and as those tiny sets of feet explore every nook and cranny, my husband wraps me in his arms and says, “I’m sorry, I thought it would be nicer.” I shrug him off–it’ll be great!–, and then search for cleaning products.

We fill our days with hermit crab and sea shell hunts, wave-jumping and rock climbing. I coax my baby into the sand but the first day he is wary of this new frontier, content to shovel sand from the edge of the more familiar feel of a blanket. My toddler jumps and splashes and runs in the water, never coming out unless to say he’s hungry. Our beach time is punctuated with naps and meals, and under the warm, late August sun, with the cool ocean breeze sweeping away all of our real-life troubles, we have found a haven.

I look at my husband across the table, lost in thought, far away. I reprimand myself for having brought up the ghost that we finally buried on this trip. Instead of apologizing, I say “Why are we even talking about this? Let’s move on. More wine?” But he declines and I decline and we decide sleep seems a better option. The seamless perfection of this week at the beach punctuated by the reality of what awaits us back in our real life.

As I reach for the soap and scrub the sand and sea salt off my skin in the shower of our city townhouse, I remember my baby just hours ago, our last jaunt on the beach. We grab our suits and race to beach an hour before check out to squeeze in one more ounce of summer. This time, our baby is ready for the sand and the water. Brave now, he holds his father’s hand as he wades out into the sea, giggling under his baseball hat, squealing when the waves reach his belly. My toddler counts buoys, then begs me to “be a mermaid”, so I dive under the shallow water and swim up to him, listening to my boys squeal with delight. My husband reaches down, grabs hold of our baby and tosses him in the air, then dunks him back in the water. We are the only ones on the beach, on the planet. We are in the middle of an ocean, and we are all we need. The words spoken last night have drifted out with the tide and we purge ourselves of the things we said with each dip in the ocean, each shallow dive. As I swim toward my screeching boys, holding a look of equal parts fear and exhilaration as they wait for me to surface, I leave, for these last few moments, all of our real life behind. Right now we are just bodies buoyed by the salt of the ocean; reflections in the water changing with the circling sun. We are imperfect, flawed, loving, adapting creatures that move with the tide.

The laughter rises up from my family and I feel the breeze at my back. I wish for the breeze to carry that laughter back to our real life, to remind me of the buoyancy, the light, the laughter we found at this exceptionally unexceptional beach. I hope that this laughing breeze can find me when I feel our life about to change–again.

I turn off the shower and bring the towel to my face. The beach is gone from my body, I’ve erased all signs of it. But in my soul, and in a forlorn beach house not far away, I know there exists a world where my husband is free, where burden is buoyed.

I will not forget that place.

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Constellations

We chase the fading light of the longest day of the year for as long as possible, but the sun relents as the stars give way. From the passenger side of the childless car I look up at the pale blue, darkness pursuing us in the distance, and see the constellations faintly appear. I remember our last night in Buenos Aires, eight months ago now, though it feels more like a lifetime; the warm breeze, the full moon. Our balcony spread before us offering us a view unparalleled; city parks sprawling below us like a carpet unfurled, the tree tops beckoning to us with their swaying branches. The water from the vibrantly lit Italian-inspired fountain a block away dances in a soft orange glow. My husband and I sip our favorite discovery: an obscure Argentine blend that makes us feel like locals. We star gaze and whisper and at some point I cry about the fate that awaits us: cancer treatment, no house, uncertain future. But on the balcony under the stars, under the constancy they provide, I can postpone my dread for a few more hours, and so we stay. Looking up, my husband wonders aloud about the brilliant canopy overhead that seems to shine brighter this night.

“I’ve always wanted to see the Southern Cross”, he muses, more to himself than to me, and then suddenly he’s a man on a mission, searching for the Ipad, searching with purpose. He returns a moment later, face buried in screen. “Didn’t my parents have some star-gazing app?” he asks me without looking up, though an answer is not required. He has already begun the download. We wait a moment longer, and then he points the Ipad at the stars, hoping to learn just one more thing about this magical place in the southern hemisphere before we are foreigners again.

He moves the Ipad slowly across the sky as he identifies aloud one by one the satellites and constellations. And then, victory.

“There! Right there!” he signals to a small kite-shaped cluster in the sky, switching between his Ipad and reality, “the Southern Cross!” A contented smile creeps across his face as he checks it off his list. There it is: gratitude. Cancer has stolen his ability to stay in this city he loves, working a job he relishes, but tonight he found the stars he sought, and he is grateful, happy.

I smile to myself in the car, remembering his fulfillment at finding the constellation just before we left for good. I turn my gaze over to my husband, steering us home. The ceremony this afternoon brought us back to yet another time; another part of his life out of reach due to cancer and circumstance. A squadron he flew with now to be run by one of his best friends; history coming full-circle.

I remember my husband’s anxious request. “I’d like to be there,” he says after receiving an email from his friend announcing his change of command ceremony. And I agree. We drive 7 hours south from DC to South Carolina to watch the ceremony. It is a breezy, blue-sky day on base and the roar of the jets makes me ache for our former life. I catch myself remembering the drives home from my job under the hot Phoenix sun, weaving through the back roads lined with fields of color–roses as far as the eye could see–as I try to catch a glimpse of my fiancé in his jet, wondering if he can see me from the sky. My husband stands in the hangar at attention as we watch the ceremony, wearing his flight suit for what is likely to be his last time. Among other things, cancer has stolen his ability to fly. The flags change hands and suddenly our friend has become commander, right in front of us. My husband smiles and tells me to watch the jet in the back of the hangar. I turn to see an airmen unveil the new commander’s name on the jet, symbolism and history all in one. My husband claps his hands together in pride and excitement, reveling in the experience. I wonder to myself if my husband is seeing what might’ve been…

An hour later we are celebrating and I am talking to the new squadron commander’s wife, the dermatologist, my friend, our first call after my husband’s diagnosis, the one who knew before we did what a stage III melanoma diagnosis actually meant. Between children tugging at her dress and a sprinkling of well wishes, we talk about the last year of our lives, the surprises we’ve encountered, the joys and the heartaches.

And then she asks, “How are you handling all of this?” and her eyes begin to mist. I take a breath. But the words come easily, because they are true.

“I made a decision. I have two options: I can either wonder everyday whether my husband will die from this, or I can enjoy every second of every day we have together.” I scan the room to find my husband. I spot him with the commander, laughing. He sees me and smiles. “And I choose to enjoy.” I catch myself wavering as I finish the sentence. This is not the place I tell myself.

She smiles and I smile and I know that in a different setting, we’d be crying. But there isn’t time and it doesn’t matter. We are celebrating. Life is happening all around us. And so we rejoice.

“The longest day of the year and now it’s over!” my husband’s observation brings me back to the front seat as he watches the dark envelope the sky.

“Do you miss it?” I ask him, and he frowns for a minute as he deciphers what “it” I am referring to.

“The flying?”

“Yes,” I answer, “the jet, the flying, your old life.” Life before cancer, I want to add, but don’t.

He takes a moment and adjusts his hands on the wheel, flexing his hands and then re-grips. “I do miss it,” he reflects, “but I’m really happy with the decisions we’ve made. Going to Argentina took me out of the jet, but I wouldn’t have missed it.” He takes a breath and then proceeds, his voice a little softer.

“I’m just so glad I’ve been able to do all that I’ve done. I really am.”

And there it is again: gratitude. The change of command, the jets he’ll never fly again, watching friends move on and up in their career while he is sidelined by cancer on “patient status” until the end of his clinical trial, none of this bothers him. He squeezes the good out and discards the rest. He is the person I wake up to every morning, and he manages to surprise me even now. In this moment, I remind myself to be more like him.

“Do you miss it?” he says with a grin, well aware of my weakness for a man in a flight suit.

I smile, “Just don’t throw out the flight suit.”

He laughs and we drive into the dark, watching the northern hemisphere stars burn brighter as we go. I scan the satellite radio and find a Jimmy Eat World concert and we sing when we know the words and listen when we don’t. Closer to the city he spots fireworks from a theme park in the distance and we watch like little kids. The moon is full and bright, and our drive nears its end. We stop at a red light and I put my hands over his eyes and kiss him, preventing him from seeing the light change, a game we played before marriage, before babies, before cancer. A game we played when the world was lighter. He laughs and kisses me back and I release my hands, and he drives. He is smiling in the dark, and as I look up at the stars overhead, I realize it’s not the stars that are the constant, it’s him.

And I am grateful.

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The Dance

We sit in the oncology wing of Georgetown and wait for my husband’s name to be called. We both sip hot tea and busily avoid the reality that awaits us by reading articles on our iphones and sharing funny posts on facebook–anything to distract, to amuse, the lighten. It is Tuesday–hospital day–and soon we will be called back to a cramped, dingy room to be told the results of my husband’s PET CT. To be told if the cancer is back. I feel my eyelids get heavy as I struggle to read what’s on the screen in front of me; sleep did not come easily last night as my mind raced, filling with various scenarios of how today would go. And every time, it came back to the wedding. How would I keep bad news to myself this weekend at my brother’s wedding? Would I have to?

***

Saturday afternoon, 2pm. From the pew I can see my brother’s face perfectly; a mix of happiness and anxiousness and perspiration from the humid Tulsa air. He and his soon-to-be bride are seated on the altar, holding hands and listening to the homily written specifically for them this day. The priest likens marriage to a dance, and, in Oklahoma spirit, quotes a few country song lyrics. I smile inwardly at the bizarre way a priest reading a country song lyric from the altar actually sounds biblical. He reads another:

“I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance”

The priest expounds on this, reminding them that there will be pain, trials, difficulty, but that these imperfections form the unique love of marriage. I feel my face flush and my heart beat a little faster. The pain of these words is acute and too familiar. The church is hot and I can feel my brow start to bead with sweat. I try to look beyond the blushing couple over to the groomsmen to find my husband. He is hidden behind the priest. Probably better that way. I look at this couple on the altar; they are young and in love and wrapped up in everything wedding. And I want to stand up and plead with them, “Listen! This is the most important thing you will hear today!”; to warn them of what lies ahead in “real life”. But instead I am poised and steady, fighting the urge to crumble as I recall the enormous struggle we face after three short years of marriage.

I flash back to our wedding day–the 115 degree Arizona summer heat that, somehow, I didn’t even feel. The flowers, the dresses, the walk down the aisle, my three brothers by my side, happy tears streaming down my face as I walked toward the man I was about to marry. Giddiness at the prospect of a lifetime together…but, how long is a lifetime? I watch this couple and the couple in my mind’s eye about the embark on the unknown, and I ask myself: knowing the pain awaiting us, would I have still walked toward him? If I could have missed the pain, would I have?

***

“Such great news,” my cousin clinks his glass with mine, freeing golden bubbles from the bottom and sending them bursting to the top, and he gives me a nod as he sips, waiting to say more. The sun is sinking lower over the Tulsa skyline as we celebrate the day’s nuptials from thirty stories high. I open my mouth to concur but before I can utter a word someone grabs me by the arm and says “your brother says to be ready, your song is coming on.” A verbal drive-by. The music has stopped and, three guitar picks into the next tune, I know what my brother has done. In the midst of one of the most important days of his life, he has remembered the song: the one my baby claps his chubby hands to, the one my toddler sings the chorus of for days on end. The only song my husband has ever turned to me and said “this song always makes me think of you”.

My husband and I race to dance floor with our babies, watching their eyes light up as their ears recognize the beat. My toddler, in his glory, stomps his foot and claps his hands to the beat of a song he’s sung so many times from the comfort of his carseat. He wiggles in the middle of the small circle of uncles and cousins, laughing all the while. My baby spins in circles next to his daddy, then reaches up to be held, tired but happy from his exertion on the dance floor. We sing at the top of our lungs and laugh and twirl. We dance. My husband is happy, the kind of happy only someone who’s fought his battles can know. He is surrounded by his best friends, his family, and his two boys mimicking his every move. The news of a cancer-free scan cannot compete with the joy I see in his eyes tonight. I find my married brother, I take his arm and pull him close and, over the music, whisper “thank you”. He looks at me with love and I know he’d do so much more for us if he could. But this is enough. He gives me a spin and we dance some more.

The song is ending and I see my husband high-five our toddler and cradle our baby in his arms; I see my family, my dance, right in front of me. I survey the scene around us: a celebration on all fronts. And I want to try and explain to my brother all that he has just done for me, the incredible memory he’s just made for us. I want to remind him of what the priest said at the altar today, of the surprises that he’ll face in his marriage. That some of the surprises are painful but that, somehow, the pain makes the joy so much sweeter. I hug him instead because I can’t find words. I close the circle of my family, wrapping my husband and boys in my arms, overcome with emotion as the song ends. This is our dance, this beautiful, surprising, gut-wrenching life.

“I love you,” I tell my husband through the tears I’ve stopped fighting, my chin resting on his shoulder. A clean PET scan, a wedding, dancing babies and a beaming husband; this is the dance. I see a few guests through my tear-filled eyes watching us, and I realize some have also been moved to tears. “I know,” he says, “it’s okay, everything’s okay,” he reassures me. And it is.

I pull back from him to look at his face, the face I walked toward less than four years ago. And I answer my own question with one word: yes. Yes, I would walk toward him all over again, in spite of the pain, because I would never, ever want to miss this dance.

Like a drum my heart never stops beating for you
And long after you’re gone gone gone

I’ll love you long after you’re gone gone gone

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