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Soon after we fell in love, my boyfriend was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Over the course of the next year and a half, we learned what we could — and couldn’t — control.
“Is your flue open?” he yelled, carefully poking his head through the gold-rimmed doors of my fireplace.
“My what?” I shouted from the kitchen.
“Your flue. Is it open?”
“I dunno,” I called. “Probably.” I was preoccupied, surveying the sad contents of my fridge for the hope at a meal. While bringing a pot of water to a boil, I watched the windows fog over. For a moment, save for the occasional rustlings echoing from the next room, I forgot entirely about the cold, about the flue, and about the company of my friend, who, for weeks leading up to this evening, had resided within nothing more than a platonic context.
I served us both. “Look, it’s all about the kindling,” he continued. I gazed past him, noting his apparent decision to shred a recent New Yorker. “You stack a few pieces on top of the tinder. A crisscross pattern usually works best. But you gotta make sure to leave space for air circulation.” A sly smile crept over his face. He read my amusement from across the room, picked up on my probably not-so-subtle, flirtatious mockery.
“I’m enjoying this. Truly,” I laughed. “But do you mind letting me take it from here?” He scooted back, still smiling, and offered up a clear shot between the stack of wood I had adopted as a mid-meal backrest and the nearly ready-for-action fire pit. Without skipping a beat, I chucked several logs sloppily into the grate. The tinder he had so gingerly assembled, alongside the kindling he’d meticulously planned for and prepped with, scattered. He held his stomach in hysterics while I dramatically struck a match and flipped it into the fireplace, and — as the sparks caught and the flames slowly spread — he wiped tears from his eyes from laughing so hard. “You,” he sputtered, “are a fucking trip.”
A trip. The trip. Our trip. “Oh! The mushrooms!” I disappeared into my room and returned with a clear plastic bag brimming with psychedelics.
By now, our bellies were full. The dishes were cleared. The sky had darkened, and the rain outside, as well as the fire within, had picked up in intensity. “Are you ready?” I asked, divvying up our drugs over the red area rug stretched before my fireplace.
“Always,” he smiled.
A hazy warmth began to wave across our space. Barely visible energy flumes pulsated from my pillow-clad couch, traced a fern-lined window, toyed with the blaze itself. We lost track of time. Music throbbed. Our existence swayed and rocked. At some point, mid-giggling-fit, I pulled a collection of glitter pens from the deepest bowels of my storage closet. We crouched on our shins, backs curled over our knees, and painted glimmering geometrics and sparkling abstracts along the cut-up backsides of paper grocery bags.
Faces mere inches from the flames, we conducted typical hallucinogenic conversations such as “What totally mundane household appliance would you pinpoint as the key signifier to your ‘successful adult life?’” Mine: a juicer. His: a waffle iron. With a proud nod toward the flames and a playful nudge, I reminded him “I made this fire.” It was here, long after the embers died and our psychedelic visuals mellowed, long after weeks of our own slow simmer, our own gentle unfolding, our own gradual build, that we kissed. We kept kissing. Not long after he told me he loved me.
While we settled into this initial, delicate phase of our relationship, a morning run suddenly sent him to the emergency room. Cramping in his abdominals triggered a bit of blood in his pee. A bit of blood in his pee led to the discovery that his system was shutting down. The culprit pulling the trigger: a very large tumor wrapped around his right kidney. Several scans showed worse news. The cancer had already metastasized. There were additional tumors in his lungs, questionable spots on his liver, and other “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” concerns.
I had just turned 27. He was 26.
I joined him at the hospital, then returned home, to another fire. This one, furiously hand-drawn with markers instead of glitter pens, featured a couple of crisscrossed logs, and a rainbowed array of flames above them. At the bottom of the poster, I traced “I made this fire” in awkward block letters.
Rolling the poster into my bag, I biked back to the hospital. Two sullen cancer specialists white-knuckled their clipboards and recapped our very grim reality. “…Stage 4,” a faceless voice murmured.
“Does anybody have any tape?” I interjected. “I really need some tape.”
“Immediate surgery…he’ll need…”
The voices ignored my request. Invisible, I began flinging drawers and cabinets open.
“Maybe medical tape? Yeah, that would be great,” I said to no one.
Silent, he sat on the bed in the middle of the room. I felt his eyes on me. The conversations continued. I found a roll of medical tape, tucked within a drawer full of gauze. To the deflated statement of “lucky to survive a year…”
I set about determining the optimal position of the fire poster. Choked-up inquiries interspersed the voices.
“Across from the bed.” I whispered to myself. “That way, he can see it.”
A stranger’s prayers echoed behind me. Securing each corner of my creation, I continued, “He can always see it.”
That night, and for hundreds of nights to follow, I held his head in my hands while he cried the tears most people only unleash in utter privacy. He wailed. I rubbed his back. He screamed. I squeezed his hands. He sobbed. I sobbed. When there was nothing left but deep, defeated sighs, and uncontrollable trembling, I curled my body around his and conjured the powers of the universe into a thick, protective covering of sorts.
For a long time, I thought we had this under control. I treaded some bullshit fine line between science and faith, embraced cutting-edge treatments while warranting some woo-woo connection with the natural world. I saw this as some challenge to overcome. A quick hurdle in the road toward “enlightenment” that, assuming I played the choicest of my cards right, could be surmounted.
We toyed with meditation, flirted with tarot cards, contacted mediums, and speed-dialed “seers.” We located therapists, group support circles, naturopaths, life coaches, and spiritual mediums. We researched the perks of fish oils, the pros of selenium. We doused our organic, locally sourced produce in turmeric, boosted our lube with grape seed extract, and practically snorted matcha.
With every means of Western medicine that presented itself, we signed up, dove in, and started immediately. Under the guidance of surgeons, scientists, and specialists, our own à la carte combination of treatment was concocted. A dose of radiation, a light sprinkling of chemo. A heavier round of radiation. Oral chemo. A quick surgery and the latest “breaking clinical trial.” Mind-numbing medications. Mood-altering painkillers. Pills and more pills. Prescriptions to treat side effects; then to curb the side effects of side effects.
Together, we combined the choices of the country’s finest cancer experts with the feel-good opinions of Oprah, the advice of today’s tech-supported scientists with TED Talks on “power” and “perseverance.” Together, we mixed Buddha’s bright ideas with immunotherapy, melded acupuncture with antimetabolites. Together, we balanced chemo with chakras, surgeons with the healing powers of crystals, any pseudo-convincing conspiracy theory with perfectly packaged, church-supported spirituality.
Sleepless nights at the hospital were spent upright, saturated with silent concentration.
“Ready?” he asked, facing me.
“One sec,” I answered. I propped a pillow behind me, untangled myself from the cords that connected him to surrounding machines. “Ready.”
With his knees rested against my thighs and my feet tucked under him, we’d close our eyes. Center our breathing. Imagine the sighs and muffled moans of patients as some white-noise background choir to our meditations.
“Just picture a white light,” I’d whisper. “Burning around us. Through us. From within us.” A listless patient would shift. “Visualize grace. Peace. Health,” I’d continue. Someone would cough. “Grace. Peace. Health.” Time would stop.
My fire poster followed him home. Now perched above his bed, the edges curled slightly, untamable. Large creases spoke of its numerous handlings. Its pinks and yellows had faded significantly, residual hints of its once-sunny spot in the hospital.
However unsettling our day-to-day routine, the subconscious was an equally disconcerting realm. In each, varying scenes warped into the same foreseeable vision:
I’d wake beside him. Survey the room, the sheets, the morning light, delicate and disarming. Admire his features, softened as he slept on. In each, a faint roar would rise, bringing with it some sense of impending urgency. In each, I’d perch above him, lay hands on his body, shriek some language of the ancients. And in each, his tumors would begin to glow. A bright blue hue that, as a deafening roar enveloped us, would eventually burn with a white-hot intensity. When raw, searing energy swallowed us in our entirety, I’d bolt upright, screaming.
He wrapped his arms around my waist and pleaded with me to calm down. To let it all go. To surrender my fear. To inhale slowly. To exhale even slower.
“Breathe with me,” he whispered. “Innnnnnnn” and “ouuuttttttt.” “Innn…slowly, good, you got this…now out…”
While I struggled to reign in my anxiety, fought to control my breaths, he walked me through dimensions. Led me gently from my front-and-center focus: cancer, death, time — our lack thereof. Stroking the nape of my neck, he spoke of the greater picture.
“I want you to see the tumors,” he murmured. “Look at them. See all of them.”
He spoke of our bodies, pressed together in the softness of the room. Of his apartment. Of our city. Of our country, extensive and great. Of the Earth and the stars. Of the sun. His words painted neighboring galaxies with their glowing plumes, their turquoise-tinted currents. Their nebulous strands.
“We’re all just the dust of the universe, mere particles, my love,” he continued, “alive within our own orbits.” He spoke of his death as a return to this space. A homecoming of such immensity that its vastness, its power, actually curbed his fear. Comforted him. I fell asleep curled into his chest, only to jolt awake hours later.
This time he was crouched over me, pinning my shoulders back with both hands. “Shhhh! It’s OK! It’s OK. Shhhh. It’s a dream, it’s just a dream,” he said. “It’s all right. It’s OK.” I started crying, drenched in sweat.
I chanted with gods. I stood on my head and scrolled through my mental rolodex of SOS Contacts. I texted Cardea Goddess of Health, tweeted @Iaso (Goddess of Cures), friended Panacea, Greek Goddess of Universal Remedy, Gchatted Dhanvantari, Hindu Physician of the Gods, and ceaselessly poked Pinga, Inuit Goddess of Medicine. I absorbed every online academic study and bought every self-help best-seller at Barnes & Noble. I grabbed a brand-new journal and four gel-point pens with the intention of literary emoting.
I ran long distances, often in the middle of the night, along wooded trails, to a recording of a complete stranger’s heartbeat on repeat.
During one dark, freezing forest run, I tripped over the raised, knotted roots of a particularly regal-looking tree. Cloaked in vines, its moss-draped branches curled upward and out, sanctioning a portion of the trail as some spiritual cocoon of greenery. I pulled myself to my feet, surveyed the degree of my scraped knees, took in the tree’s expansive, three-pronged trunk.
Caught up in the absolute silence of my surroundings, acutely aware of my woodland solitude, I held nothing back.
“IT’S NOT FAIR!!” I screamed, beating my hands against its bark. “It’s not fair…”
Palms splintered, forearms scratched, I crumbled to the ground heaving.
“I think he’s dying,” I whispered into its bark. It swayed in silence.
It was weeks later, only after a sit-down with doctors, that we finally addressed the abyss.
Their professional insight, once paired with stern brows and complete confidence, was now prefaced with an apology. “We’re sorry…but until your system stabilizes…until you put on weight…there isn’t anything we can do.”
A social worker, sporting jeans and a sad smile, squeezed our hands while she encouraged him to “start saying his good-byes.”
I stared steadily at the beige wall across from me. Rubbed his lower back with my spare hand. Steadied my breathing.
Leaving that appointment, heartbroken and heavy, he pulled a spontaneous U-turn and suddenly gunned it in the opposite direction from home. Gripping the passenger-seat side door, I said nothing. He pulled over at a park, switched off the car, and got out, slamming the door. Silent, I followed him.
We walked through gardens, side by side. Paused before koi ponds, gazed at passersby. Upon reaching a patch of grass, sloped toward the water, facing the sunset head-on, he sat down. Joining him, I held his head in my lap. Ran my hands over his hairless skull. Rubbed the nape of his neck. It was only due to the occasional catch of his breath, or streak of dampness down my inner thigh, that I knew he was crying. We sat like this, hushed and still, for over an hour.
As the park cleared, and the horizon before us melted into a spectacular smear of colors and clouds, he sat up, looked at me, and said, “I’m dying.”
I whispered, “I know.” A woman and her Labrador jogged by. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
A young father marched past, proud toddler propped on his shoulders. The sky above us began to darken.
He leaned over and kissed me on each cheek. “I’m sorry that you have to go on living.”
A crew of bike commuters buzzed past. A breeze kicked up. The leaves overhead rustled. I tried to memorize the scene. Burn it into my mind.
The couch where we had spent many an afternoon together became the bed that cradled his skeletal frame the night his clock finally stopped. I remember a breathless phone call from his aunt, urging my presence immediately. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. A terrible R&B song on the radio. A bizarre yet knowing sense of calm, that it was all happening and that it was happening now.
Upon arriving, I was given a brief rundown on the situation while being led along the back of the house. “His heart is slowing,” his aunt explained. “We’re all here. I’m so glad you made it.”
Inside, his closest family members hovered, alternating between tear-streaked whispers into his ear, and tedious tasks — necessary, cerebral breaks from the so-surreal-yet-so-real event unfolding before our eyes. He was dying. Right there. Right then. Someone fumbled with Pandora. Struggled to select a soothing soundtrack to accompany his ascent onward. Another paced. Paused over the occasional candle to ensure suitable wick length and optimal burnability. His stepfather tended to the fire. Layered log after log into the hearth. Wiped his eyes on his sleeves while he worked. Joining his mother couch-side, we watched his chest rise, then fall. Rise, then fall. “I love you,” I whispered, kissing his face. His heartbeat fluttered.
And, when the room stilled, when all was quiet and calm; when peace and grace surrounded us, spilled over the corners of the couch, burned above the candles, radiated from the fire; when nothing but love encircled us, folded over us, scooped us up and carried us on; he left.
It’s been several months. The yoga mat, the healing crystals, and the dog-eared tower of self-help reads sit stacked behind the glitter pens, in the furthest-away corner of the storage closet. The former dialogue between any deities and me has fallen silent. My running path no longer includes the tree.
I’m in my kitchen again. Clad in nothing but the softest of his oversize T-shirts and the thick-knit wool socks he willed to me during his final days.
I have my entire day. My entire life.
In a large bowl, I combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk egg whites in a smaller container, held clutched to my chest. Float absentmindedly from fridge to sink. As soft peaks begin to form, I remember some easy Sunday morning when, before the slow-burning stove of his parents’ house, he sealed blankets around my body, and disappeared from the room.
I pour milk in with melted butter. Melted butter in with yolks. Recall how, after several moments of his absence, spurred by the sporadic clanking resonating across the dining room, I wrapped a quilt around my body and trailed after him. How spread across his counter was flour, oil, eggshells, chocolate chips, whipped cream, blueberries — the works.
Hips leaned against the stove, eyes closed, I fold the batter together. Remember his smile, equal parts sheepish and alive.
I begin slicing the just-washed strawberries still draining in my sink. Relive how, beaming, he attempted to shield the sizzling, steaming mechanism behind him. Replay the tilt of his head, the angle of his smirk, the playfulness of his shrug. “So…” he laughed while he spoke, “I finally got that waffle iron.”
Across the kitchen, my fridge features pictorial evidence of the personal happenings of fellow peers and close friends. Magnets hold up “Save the Date” invites. Proudly announce new pregnancies. Highlight up-and-coming celebrations that pivot around the adoption of a new pet, the arrival of a new life, the purchase of a new home. A new start to the Next Phase of Great, wherein we all sit back, comfortably, into the lives we think we’re promised.
And, while I can truly appreciate this full-speed sprint to build something substantial, to create something lasting, to revel in this assumption that we do, in fact, have forever, I now struggle to relate to it. The future, the tomorrow, all feels very far away.
I spoon the concoction into my own preheated iron. Perch patiently on one foot, a flamingo-like stance he used to mercilessly tease me for. Wait for the batter to brown.