When I woke from the anaesthesia it was to the sound of another woman screaming. Her terror filled me, surrounded me, and I opened my eyes searching for Samuel. As I was wheeled from the surgery to my hospital room, the strange sensation of being absent from my body began to fade, replaced by rising panic. And then there he was. Standing with my mom and best friend, love emanated from all of them, but from Samuel also came peace.
For the next few days in the hospital, I kept looking for him. When I mistimed my pain management and had to desperately hit the button to release morphine; when I woke after a restless night of being too scared to fully relax; when I slowly worked up the courage to sit and shuffle around my room. Looking at him was like looking directly at the life that existed for me after this, outside of this, beyond this.
Soon, the after came. The drive home was agony. I was exhausted when we arrived from holding myself rigid in the hope that the pain would not touch me. Sam led me upstairs, ran a bath, and gently helped me remove my clothes. I stood, eyes closed, terrified of my own body. I had to be guided into the water as I was determined not to catch a glimpse of myself. He washed me so softly. My long hair was matted to my head and I could not lift my arms to wash it. Sam began the routine that was second nature to me but foreign to him: shampoo, conditioner, comb through the tangles. With each step, he asked tentatively if he was doing it right. His kindness made me furious. I felt so ugly and broken; I did not want to be twenty-five and teaching my boyfriend how to wash my hair.
After, I sat staring straight ahead while Sam dressed me. He paused before zipping up the sports bra I had bought especially for the occasion, taking in what had become of my breasts, before looking up at me to say, “They look the same, a little bruised, but the same. You are beautiful.”
I learned then what has become the indelible fact of my life: Samuel loves me.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer when Sam and I had been dating for six months. For five and a half of those months I was such an idiot that they barely counted. Still, he was the first person I called. I went to that appointment believing that the lump was benign and left knowing that I needed a mastectomy. This outcome had not even entered the realm of possibility for me. The shock of it left me sobbing on the street and I called Sam desperate for the hope of a future.
I never doubted that Sam would be there for me even though all I had to offer was chaos and now I was holding out the other hand filled with illness. I did not know then about the high percentage of men who leave their wives when they become sick; their care too much of a burden, too heavy for a love that had taken decades to build. It was still feasible to count the time we had known each other in weeks, we had no shared responsibilities, we didn’t live together…but I knew he would not leave me.
He cared for me until I returned to myself, sleeping on the floor at the end of the bed long after it was necessary because he was scared that he might jostle me in the night. We moved into a room together, then a big, light-filled apartment, until finally settling into a smaller apartment that is not much bigger than our first room. Here, our bedroom is made of glass, overlooking the room that is our dining/kitchen/living space, so we exist in the complete absence of privacy.
Our small apartment does not make me crave more space but less of it. I am always looking to close the gap between us and the glass makes our home feel like a relationship experiment.
Observe Samuel methodically making the morning coffee. Observe Shannon lying on the couch, scrolling through her phone.
We fail often at communication but for those times there is the language of the body. There is the way Samuel cleans at me, stomping through the house and washing dishes with a ferocity that might break them; the way I make myself small and unforgiving; the way he gets up to make coffee with a quiet devotion and the way I immediately get up to hug him in the kitchen; the way he kisses my forehead; the way I open my arms wide whenever he walks through the door.
Observe all the ways we try to love each other.
Four years later, another lump. I found it and ignored it. Sam found it and did not ignore it. He asked me to make a doctors appointment and I told him to stop micromanaging me; it was my body. We lived like this for weeks: Sam too scared to anger me, me too scared to feel anything but angry. Until one evening, he lay his head in my lap, sobbing, and said, “I am so scared.”
I made an appointment the next day.
For the first time, I realised that my body was no longer completely my own. I belong to myself but to take care of my body is to love Sam. I am home to his future. When he looks at me, he sees his whole life unfolding. I cannot prevent every bad thing from happening to me but when I am cavalier with my own health, I am also being careless with his love.
Being diagnosed with cancer illuminates the borders of my body; there is what I can see and what I can feel, and then beyond that, a territory filled with the unknown to which I do not have a visa to travel. So much of the life we’ve built together exists in that unknown territory. Our shared future transcends the borders of our bodies, lives in reverence of that unseen space, hopes for more time.
When I went in for the biopsy and waited two weeks for the results, my body became our secret. I couldn’t bear to tell anyone else and have to manage their sympathy and their fear. We would begin each day with Sam telling me not to google and end it with me telling him everything I googled. He answered every time I called, calmed me when anxiety was stealing my days. I whispered to him at night, asked him to imagine terrible outcomes, and he begged me to stop anticipating our suffering.
The appointment came and the doctor confirmed my fear: reccurent breast cancer. I cried; Sam asked all the questions he had been carefully researching. We listened to the nurse outline the treatment - surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy - and when she left the room, Sam echoed the refrain of the afraid, “It’s going to be okay,” to which I snapped, “I do not care if it’s going to be okay, I still have to live every day between now and then.”
The truth is that we both have to live them. Cancer is happening in me but it’s happening to us. We both have to live each day with different degrees of physical suffering but the same gratitude for every new day in our shared life.
I am in limbo now, waiting for treatment to begin, unsure how the corona virus has changed what will be prescribed. The only thing that really changed in the wake of my new diagnosis was that we joined a circuit training gym. Every morning, we woke at 5am, traipsed through the sleeping city, and pushed ourselves through forty-five minutes of physical endurance. Now that a global pandemic is keeping us housebound, we diligently move the furniture each day to clear space for our workout. Every squat a promise: I will do everything I can to ensure another day.
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