Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Never Undone

On February 13th, I realized Valentine’s Day was fast approaching, and I had a novel idea for my husband of almost eight years. “We should go out to dinner!” I suggested with great enthusiasm before he left for work on Thursday morning. Brian laughed, like I was nuts, but he agreed that dinner sounded great.

When I got to my office and clicked into OpenTable, I realized why Brian had laughed at me—my idea for a Valentine’s date wasn’t so novel after all. There were no reservations to be had unless we wanted to eat at 10pm and by then, I’d have gnawed my own jacket off and fallen asleep with an upset stomach. When I also realized that our babysitters would all be booked, I accepted that dinner out with my Valen-time (as Annabel calls it) wasn’t going to happen.

“Take out and TV?” I asked Brian while following up on Thursday night. He thought that sounded great so Thai food and Winter Olympics it would be.

After the kids were in bed, Brian left to pick up the take out. I hadn’t finished my work for the day so his trip was the perfect opportunity for me to do that. When he texted me that the Thai place was packed, I thought, “Even better! I needed more time.” I didn’t want to hurt his feelings though, or discount his patience in waiting for the food, so I texted back a more thoughtful answer.

An hour and a half later, Brian still wasn’t home.

“You find a hot date?” I texted to him. He never responded. I started to worry, and peered out the front window. Brian’s truck was parked in the driveway still running.

I figured he was talking to one of his fellow coaches about hockey, and I was relieved that he was back safe. I decided to leave him be and if I got hungry enough, I’d go out, grab the food, and get started on our romantic meal.

A few minutes later, the front door opened. Brian came in, put down the paper bag of Thai food, and burst into tears. Brian does not cry easily or often so the next five seconds were some of the scariest I have ever experienced. What had happened? What awful news had he heard? Forever scarred by Scott Herr’s tragic death, my first thought was that one of his players had been in a car accident. I had the split second thought of, Oh God, how will everyone get through that again? But it wasn’t that.

My mind raced a bit more until he was able to get the words out.

“It’s Kristin,” he said. And I knew. Our friend’s breast cancer had returned.

For a split second, I felt relief; relief that everyone was still here. Relief that Kristin was still here. But that split second of relief was fleeting.

Brian sobbed something about her liver. I could barely stand up.

Brian carried me over to the sofa, the place where we had cried together several times about my own cancer. We sobbed some more, Brian in control of his tears, and me, not at all. 

For the next few minutes, I wailed like a maniac; a crazy person that I never knew was inside me. "No! No! No! This can’t happen. This didn’t happen. No!”

I kicked and shook and cried some more. “Why? Why? How? No! It can’t be right. This can’t be happening.”

Brian let me throw my fit. I'm pretty sure he was crying too much to stop me. He just hugged me.

A few minutes later, he told me to stop. “This isn’t about us,” he explained. “This didn’t happen to you. You know that right?” I thought I did, but I wasn’t sure.

Kristin has been a special friend to me through my cancer journey. It was because of her cancer that I found my tumor, and after my diagnosis, she essentially mentored me along the crappy path of surgery and chemo.

But Brian was right. In my instinctual effort to try to process what had happened to Kristin, I started to get my situation mixed up with hers. Brian helped bring me back. This wasn’t about me. This was about our friend and what she and her family were going to have to endure.

* * *

I have debated whether or not to write about Kristin here. She told me I could, but I still didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. On the one hand, part of me feels that I’m in no place to tell the small fraction of the story I know about this beautiful person and about what she and her family have been through this last week; that telling just a piece of that reality is somehow disrespectful of all of the other parts that remain untold. Part of me feels that if I focus on my own perspective—if I write about last Friday night in my house and how I have felt since hearing her news—that I’m putting my far less significant experiences before Kristin's far more important ones.

On the other hand, however, Kristin and I have a lot more in common than a family that we love and a brutal kind of breast cancer that we hate. We both believe in facing the truth no matter how hard that can sometimes be. 

The truth is that I don't know what Kristin is going through right now. Curable cancer and metastatic cancer have some things in common, but they have lots of differences, too. I don't understand all of those complexities, but I do remember the five weeks I spent wondering how far my cancer had spread inside me; feeling it in my head, my neck, my lymph nodes, and even my knee. I haven't forgotten those excruciating days prior to my first surgery; the diagnostic tests and the torturous sound of the phone ringing with a result. I haven't forgotten how hard it was to suddenly face my own mortality, and how painfully I loved the people I love. I don't know what Kristin is going through right now, but I've tasted a fraction of it and it's indescribably awful. 

Maybe I shouldn't write about Kristin here. Maybe this blog will crush a patient who is peeking out of her cancer cocoon, or cause panic in a survivor who doesn't want to hear that the war she thought was over may need to be fought again. I get it, because since last Friday, I've often felt crushed and panicky, too. 

But if there is one foundation this space is built upon, it's truth. And the truth is that no one's individual story exists in a vacuum. Each one of our stories is intertwined with someone else's story, at times, temporarily, and at other times, so much so that they could never be undone. 

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