“With wisdom let your mind full of love pervade one-quarter of the world, and so too the second, third and fourth quarter. Fill the whole wide world, above, below, around, pervade the world with love-filled thought, free from any ill will, love abounding, sublime, beyond measure.” –The Digha Nikaya, Buddhist scripture
“Of all of the fires, love is the only inexhaustible one.” –Pablo Nerudo, poet
Last month I took my final dose of chemotherapy in the grueling regimen for Acute Lymphoblastic Lymphoma I have been taking since December 2013. Days before a PET CT had confirmed there was no evidence of cancer in my body. And a few weeks later I stood in front of the ocean and took this photo.
I was in Hawaii for my brother’s wedding—a celebration I was thrilled to share with him, and a symbolic moment for me. It was the first vacation I had taken since becoming sick, the anticipation becoming a focal point over the last few months. I was going to finish chemo and make my flight to Hawaii as if my soul depended on it.
When all this started, almost three years ago, I wrote a post titled, Love Is… (Holy Shit, I Have Cancer). To my surprise it was widely shared on Facebook and the Huffington Post. I never set out to become a “cancer blogger,” and in fact had shied away from writing about such personal things in public forums, but suddenly there were people curious about me and invested in my story. I wanted to keep writing. But how to continue the narrative, as it was happening, with no idea how it would unfold?
And so I have thought about what I would say here—at the end—for so long, turning over words and lines in my head. How would I write a finale to this story? How could I sum everything up in a meaningful way, while not painting meaning onto an experience that, if I’m being honest, was lonely, chaotic, random, and neither romantic nor sentimental?
I do not believe everything happens for a reason (a platitude, in my opinion, too easily offered to those struck inexplicably and unfairly by life’s cruelties)—but I believe we can find meaning in the things that happen. In the middle of the nightmare I clutched desperately onto one hope; the hope that at the end there would be some goodness that made the whole mess worthwhile—a light only this path could have carried me to.
When I was first diagnosed I had been in a long-term (nearly five year) relationship, which unraveled shortly after. And although I was confident it was the right decision, and more preoccupied with the immediate concern of surviving, the anguish sunk my heart into my chest as if the space around it had been eroding for years. The loneliness grew into a consuming void.
About a year later, I saw a psychic. I was tormented by the idea I would be infertile from the chemotherapy, and so I asked her if I would have any children. She said yes—one boy and one girl. I asked her about the man I would marry. What would he look like? What would he be like? How would I know it was him?
She told me he would not be older than me like I had imagined, but would be my age or younger. She told me he would be strong and smart and sensitive and kind, but so unassuming I could overlook him. She told me to pay attention carefully.
Since then I have turned these thoughts over and over again in my mind, each turn further refining the image of this man from a shadow into a clear vision. So when we met earlier this year, it did not feel like the first time we had crossed paths. It was as if I recognized him—as if we already knew each other. He was the one I had seen in my dreams.
I had been dating for six or so months prior, with variable success. On those early dates I would hold back until halfway through, when I would anxiously and apologetically reveal I was a cancer survivor. “I’m still on chemo, but don’t worry, I’m in remission and everything is fine,” I would say, dismissively.
I was truly surprised no one seemed to care or hold it against me. The reactions ranged from, “Oh, interesting” to “Oh, do you mind if I ask how it happened?” to “Oh, my cat had leukemia so I know what that’s like” (really).
I became more confident revealing my story, and soon decided to state it overtly in my dating profile: “I’m a cancer survivor, with the renewed appreciation for life and awesome short hair to prove it.” Some men even contacted me explicitly because of my short hair, and when I joked it had grown out a bit since I had taken my photos, they would say, not kidding as much as you’d think, “Well, that’s what scissors are for.”
But still, while a potential date might appreciate my super stylish short hair, I assumed when he got to know me the jig would be up. I would subtly dissuade any man from getting close to me; if describing my cancer-related physical and emotional instability was not sufficient to send him on his way, I would emphasize other red flags. “I have a lot of baggage” I’d say. “I’m pretty sure you don’t want to date me.” I felt sure no one could really love me after everything I had been through. And if he did, it would be despite my history, and certainly not in any way because of it.
When I met this man, though, I felt understood in a way I didn’t know was possible. On our first date we sat across each other over nachos, and he asked me, eager and curious, about the experience—not so much the specifics of what had happened, but what it had meant to me.
(He later admitted that after that first evening he went home and told his brother, “Yeah, she’s super smart and beautiful, but even more I really like that she had cancer.” He said he admired how I seemed wise from the experience and talked about it thoughtfully. He said, “I don’t know how to explain it… but the cancer thing is really fucking sexy.”)
On our second date we sat next to each other over drinks. Midway through the evening, he paused. “Do you know what I really like about you?” he said. I thought he might mention one of the superficial qualities others sometimes compliment me on, but that I don’t value too much in myself. But instead he pointed out something most people rarely notice, and fewer have admired me for. He said, “I really dig that you’re an introvert.”
On our third date we lay on the grass at Will Rogers State Park, looking up at the sky. It started as a midday picnic but ended late into the night. We ate Tender Greens and drank wine and played guitar. And as we became closer, I shared with him the rest of me—all of the pain, all of the ugly parts—but it did not dissuade him. It made him love me even more.
After not much longer we were sitting on the couch and he looked me in the eyes. “I am going to marry you,” he said. It was more statement than question. He said, “I know what I know.” It was the first breath of air as I lifted myself to the surface of the ocean. It was the light only this path could have carried me to.
Someone recently asked me if, in retrospect, there is something I would have told myself at the beginning to help me get through it. I shook my head; there was no possible way I could have understood how bad things were going to get—nor should I have had to.
I would have said, though, do not try to hedge against the suffering because there is no point—this will be a horror that can not be fought, and must simply be endured—although enduring it will not be simple, nor static. I would have said the pain will make you utterly unrecognizable to yourself, and it will be so terrifying, and so beyond anything you have ever experienced, that it will astound you it can be survived. But it can be survived, and you will survive it.
Most importantly, I would have given myself the reassurance others desperately wanted to give me, and I desperately wanted to give myself, but that none of us knew was true until now. I would have said, It will end. I would have said, You will live, and the happiest moments in your life will be not before cancer, but after.
So, now, what could I tell you about love?
I would say love is my past, and it is my story, and my story can not be taken from me. I would say I hope love is my future, although no future is guaranteed.
And I would say love is my present, and while the present is brief, it is what holds my heart up the strongest. Love is here, right now.
And I was put here for love, and I survived this for love, and I will live this day fully, for love.