Our anniversary ritual is to sit over a meal and go through the previous year, highlighting areas of growth, memorable experiences, and where we want to go from here. The eight other times we’ve done this, we’ve ultimately come to a place of: it was a good year, but a hard year. This time, we shocked ourselves by stating, this is was not an easy year by any stretch, but we were really, really happy. The difficulties were not at all related to our relationship, and only made the two of us closer. Maybe we’re figuring this thing out! We went to bed grateful, with an unexpected joy at doing our yearly couple inventory, and finding ourselves in an unprecedented time of contentment.
Later the next day, I was wondering if admitting that you are happy with your relationship is like standing up in the middle of a stormy field together, your arms clasped tight around a lightning rod. The reason for this sudden cynicism is that in the course of doing what couples do on their anniversary, we found a mass on my husband’s body. A lump — something odd that definitely did not belong on this body that I know from head to toe. It killed the mood, and absolutely terrified us.
So, in the cold hard light of the day after you find a possibly cancerous tumor on your beloved’s body, it’s challenging to stay away from the place of sure abandonment. Next month will be 10 years since my father died of cancer. That disease is my biggest trigger, my greatest fear, as I have lost most of the older generation of my family to it’s icy grasp. Maybe Cancer figured a few years was enough respite time, and it was coming back, after taking my Uncle just a little while ago, to grasp the dearest person in the world to me. I could also picture Cancer as benevolent: “Rhea, you can handle this now. You’ve worked through your grief. I’m showing up in your life again, but you’re ready for it.” Nope, totally incorrect. I completely freaked the fuck out.
First, I got really angry with my husband for how I assumed he would behave in the doctor’s office. That morning, we had no coffee or breakfast food, and I heard that Faye’s Video was serving NY style bagels on Wednesdays and Fridays now. So, I sent Joel out for some of that carbohydrate deliciousness, to shore me up for the day ahead. He came back… with croissants.
Me: “What happened to the bagels?”
Sheepish, possibly dying of a cancerous tumor husband: “They didn’t have any out.”
Heartless wife aka Me: “So… you didn’t ask?”
SPDOACTH: “Nope. I’m just really shy in those situations. And Simon even came by and said ‘Oh, you’re here for the bagels?’”
HW: “And you still didn’t speak up and ask where they had them?”
SPDOACTH: “No, I had already bought the croissants so I just laughed awkwardly and left.”
I ate my croissant with increasing dread. My husband does not have very good health care. They recently misdiagnosed a virus he had and it led him into a month-long bout with bronchitis. I got really scared, thinking that if he couldn’t ask where the heck the special bagels were at our neighborhood store, there was no way in hell he was going to advocate for himself to the doctor.
HW: “You’ll demand to talk to the real doctor, right? Not the guy who just looks up stuff on his iPad?”
SPDOACTH: “Yes, Rhea.”
HW: “I don’t know, I’m scared. Do you want me to come with you?”
I was literally throwing shoes at this point, in such a panic that I actually did the dishes from the night before, needing desperately to have busy hands. He left for work. I burst into tears. My sister serendipitously called.
Saintly Sister: “I’m calling because I realized Joel is now the longest living man in our family. He’s been in my life for 12 years now, longer than my husband, my father-in-law, and the most constant since Dad’s been gone.”
Totally Flipping Out Me: “Well, he’s about to die so…”
She talked to me for an hour, while Olive watched Yo Gabba Gabba and played a very disengaged game of catch with me. My sis really helped me ground myself, but I was still losing the battle in my mind. I basically spent the whole day living in the world in which my husband was dead. I really, really tried not to go there, but it turns out that the big C word was just too powerful over me. I was having a serious flight response to it, and it felt like imagining my life as a widowed single parent would somehow help me prepare for the worst.
It didn’t. Instead, I had a friend take Olive to the park that afternoon, and I got my butt to dance class. I stood in the back and flung my body around, dripping with the knowledge that my husband’s doctor had sent him straight to the hospital for an ultrasound. He called right before the last routine. I ran out of class, desperate to hear the news.
Malignant. Benign. The words themselves carry so much power, with all their smug g’s and n’s, so sure of their potency. Maybe proclaiming happiness is a lightning rod after all, but this time we cheated death, standing there in the rain together. “It’s benign”, the Not Dying After All Husband told me. I went back in and danced the final song, which, fittingly, was to Beyonce’s love song Halo. “You’re my saving grace”, she sang, and I leapt and wrung out my body with every beat. Then we got huge hoagies and lots of pie for dessert. We’re off to spend the night in a swanky hotel together, our first night ever away from Olive. Thanks to the speed of modern medicine, we’re not going to spend it staring at each other with crazy eyes, terrified that it could be our last anniversary together. Instead, it will be a glorious celebration of our love: “I thought I was losing you, I didn’t lose you, I get to love you a little while longer.” Amen.