Cancer, Year One
Exactly one year ago today, my wife Robin was diagnosed with aggressive Stage III breast cancer at the age of 35. A diagnosis like that ends one kind of life, and in that moment and the following weeks, it seems like there won’t ever be a new kind. In our old life, we always knew we’d resolve whatever problems came our way. Suddenly we were thrown into a new life, one where the bottom can and does fall out. A life where making a five year plan feels like tempting fate. Time and plans became meaningless when every day we woke up wondering how we’d get through the day.
It was impossible to accept our new reality. We were young, healthy, fit even! Earlier in that same month, Robin had received her doctorate degree. We had (have!) good jobs, a good marriage, and a beautiful baby girl. We were people who Had It All(TM), and even more, we deserved to have it all. We struggled like anybody, scratching and clawing our way to this nice life. And in one instant, a few days of worry, really, it was gone.
The rug had been pulled out and it wasn’t coming back. We were standing on old, scarred floorboards, looking for that cushy Safavieh. Everything seemed shitty in comparison. It was hard to remember how lucky you were to have a roof and a floor at all, when all you could think about was that huge hole where the rug had been.
It was so damn unfair. I looked at my daughter, in all of her sweet and carefree innocence, and I’d cry thinking that it was gone and she didn’t even know it yet. In fact, she wouldn’t even remember the time before. Honey, remember when we thought we’d grow old together? Remember that? How silly. Poppy would only know of the new time: After Cancer (AC).
AC- So I yelled a lot, and I drank too much. I dropped out of my writing class that I’d really enjoyed. I didn’t bother with my friends, except when they were helping me with childcare or food. I hated literally everything about the life we had, because this was the life that gave my wife cancer.
In looking for a way out, Robin was sent to NYC’s Memorial Sloan Kettering, arguably the best oncology hospital in America, for a second opinion. Their opinion was that everything we had done in California was wrong. They sent Robin to preserve her eggs so she could start chemo. A 2 day trip turned into a 2 week trip, Robin deciding as her flight home was departing that she didn’t want to be on it. Her doctors in California had made mistakes, and we didn’t trust them. In this, I finally got the out I’d wanted — so I packed up and we moved to New York. It never would have been possible without the dozens of friends and family members who helped me pack, and drive, and take our animals and drive our cars cross country. (THANK YOU! Especially to Bronwen, Chris, Elissa, & Jeff!)
When I got here on Memorial Day Weekend, it was hot. Everything was amazingly green after five years of California droughts. It was already ice cream season! When I came home, where my family was, I could finally let go of the anger and stress and worry. I was safe. If my daughter didn’t get to grow up with her Maddy, there would be 4 aunts and uncles, 5 cousins, and 2 grandparents to love her a little bit extra.
I was finally ready to be Claire, AC. We got a new apartment, and figured out where all the best parks were. We had a fun night in July at Rye Playland even though Robin had neuropathy and could barely walk. We spent countless evenings at my sister’s house where all 6 cousins stayed up too late and ate too much sugar, collapsing into fits of giggling and tears. Despite the horrors of Robin getting chemo all summer, we were having fun and enjoying things again. The new seasons and new places were a shock to my system. I stopped remembering what I’d lost, and remembered all I had. I let go of the anger, no longer bearing the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Robin and I decided it was going to be ok. So we kept going, and kept building this new life. We both got new jobs, made some new friends and reconnected with others. In the time between today and when I started writing this article, Robin’s oncologist had found some new areas of concern to watch. They are concerning, or not concerning…just something they are watching until they are ruled out, or confirmed to be malignant. In the 3 months since Robin has stopped treatment, this has happened 3 times. It’s still going to be ok. We have a beautiful life together that makes me happy every day.
I no longer assume we have all the time in the world, but I hope we have many more decades. In the end, all you can do is appreciate every beautiful moment of life. I finally understand that harsh winters bring beautiful springs.