On our 10th wedding anniversary, my husband and I sat in the doctor’s office, having said everything there was to say. Now that we were done, my surgeon tied back her long gray hair and packed up my file, tucking away the pathology report that had, like a thief, ransacked our lives. I fidgeted and the only noise in the room was the crinkle of the paper on the examination table.
For a while no one spoke.
Back in January, I had proclaimed that it was going to be a good year. My criteria for doing so stemmed solely from my unfettered optimism and a rather unexpected publishing deal for a novel.
My husband, ever the realist, was hesitant to agree, book deal or no, you never know. Best to tread carefully. That was his way. But I was resolute.
I have since learned that the universe does not like such truisms. When you brazenly offer sweeping predictions, the universe, much like the house, tends to double down.
Shortly after my proclamation, my husband was returning from the store and slipped on the ice on our street. He landed hard on his side, our can of diced tomatoes rolling down the sidewalk. He slowly pulled himself up and hobbled into the apartment.
Fearing his rib was cracked, we went into the bathroom where the light was only slightly better and I pressed my fingers against his cold skin, gently pushing in places.
“Here? Here?” I asked as he winced.
“Still think it’s going to be a good year?” he said, his voice shaking between pained breaths. I didn’t answer him but tallied the score: Universe: 1, Us: 0
Weeks later when our plans for our 10th wedding anniversary were derailed by our nephew’s high school graduation, I started to think he was right. Universe: 2, Us: 0
And yet, I still assumed the worst thing to happen to our anniversary was that we would spend the weekend, not on a stolen getaway, but in a hotel in Albany, at a graduation party watching teenagers sneak beers out of the cooler.
Granted, this was still not what I had imagined for us. I had wanted our tenth wedding anniversary to be something special. Backpacking in Europe. A road trip through Texas.
I wanted an adventure for my 10th wedding anniversary. Instead, I got cancer.
In the surgeon’s office, it was my husband who brought up my mother’s situation, not me because, in those early hours, he did most of the talking for both of us. I had a list of questions, harvested from websites, written down and folded like a road map in my back pocket.
But I didn’t have the strength to pull them out and ask. All the movement that required, the bones and the muscles, sinews and cords coming together, seemed more than I could handle. At this moment the most I could handle was sitting still. Maybe breathing.
“So her mother,” my husband said, at the end of everything. “She needs to have a stem cell procedure. She has…”
“Multiple myeloma,” I finished for him, relieved that I finally said something. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year and it had reached the stage where treatment was necessary.
My surgeon nodded, slowly. Her gesture didn’t imply agreement but, instead, recognition of a terrible fact.
“That is serious,” she said. “That is a huge procedure. My father is still recovering. She has a journey ahead of her.”
I bristled at the word. A journey involves choice. Mystery. Spontaneity. Cancer was none of those things. A journey implied power, taking the helm in your own two hands. But cancer offered no power. Instead, power is what it fed on.
It was a conveyor belt of needles and tests and antiseptic offices. Of phone calls and faxes and waiting on hold. It was a production line that I couldn’t get off until I had been refashioned into something else.
Into someone else.
“Do I tell my mother?” I asked, though I already suspected the answer was no. I was only 37 years old and this breast cancer diagnosis was already morphing into a secret. A secret that would grow so big I would push it, like a Sisyphean boulder, uphill, for months on end.
“Listen,” the doctor said, her Polish accent a heavy stone on her tongue, “what you have to do is little.” Her pronunciation made the word sound like leetle. “Maybe you don’t want to mention it just now.”
My husband and I nodded at her, then at each other, our eyes locking. Little. We liked that word.
The same way we liked early, small and treatable. Those were the words we clung to. The words we repeated back to one another, trying to make them true. Maybe it was just a little bit of cancer. Like catching just a little bit of a cold. Don’t worry about me. Just got a bit of cancer. I’ll be fine.
“Maybe you don’t want her to worry so much,” my surgeon said. “Maybe tell her after. When is the procedure?”
“July. Less than a month.”
“Maybe you wait,” she said. “By end of summer, everything will be done. Then you tell them. OK? OK.”
She scribbled on her pad and tore off the prescription for the MRI biopsy. She promised she would call and ushered us back into the waiting room full of old people.
My husband and I liked to joke that we were young fogies, always opting for the matinee instead of the evening performance. Maybe it was an introvert thing.
When we were younger and first falling in love, I explained my anti-social habits by telling him that I will always pick Blockbuster and takeout over an evening at a club. We had a tendency to attend events where the ratio of the 60+ crowd was higher than not.
Standing in the oncology center, I wanted to tap my husband on the shoulder and say, “Look, youngest ones in the room again,” but I didn’t dare.
I had thought it was going to be a good year. But the universe, it seems, heard me and decided differently. Decided instead, it would be whatever it would be. Publications, cracked ribs, cancer, graduations. The universe didn’t really care.
"It is what it is" became our mantra. We traded that tautological phrase back and forth, pushing and pulling at it like a rusty squeeze box. We borrowed it from my surgeon who, as my treatment unfolded, would use it to describe nearly everything about my cancer.
The second unexpected tumor they found during the MRI?
"It is what it is," she said, shrugging.
The pathology report coming back with local metastasis to the lymph node -- a sign that my presumably small, early, and treatable cancer possibly had other, more aggressive, plans?
It is what it is.
We would apply these words, like wet paint, over anything we didn’t want to talk about.
We said it during the graduation, feigning smiles to our family, our secret strapped to our chests. And again during my father’s unexpected hospitalization when he rubbed right up against death’s door before coming back.
We said it through balancing my own treatment and my mother’s illness. Even when my first surgery failed to remove all the cancer and I was peeled open like a tin can, not once, but twice.
It is what it is.
We said it until we couldn’t say it anymore. Like the night I realized, ice sloshing inside me, that we might not grow old together. That I might not have as much life as I hoped I would.
Eventually I will learn to live with this fear, a thing I will never fully swallow, but will instead adapt to, the way a hungry snake settles down when it hits the antlers. We will sit for countless hours in doctor’s offices using words to talk about things that we did not expect for another 20 years. Words that we shouldn’t be using. Not yet. Not in our 30s.
I had told him it was going to be a good year. I had no idea how wrong I was.
On the night of our 10th wedding anniversary, before we boarded a bus to Albany and after we left the oncologist office, we went to the Italian place in our neighborhood. My husband ordered the good wine and when it came, I raised a glass, my thoughts buzzing like angry bees.
“Ten years ago,” I told him, “in that little clapboard church we said for better or worse.”
He nodded, offered me a smile.
“Here’s to our worse,” he said, finishing for me.
May it be short, I prayed. We touched glasses and the sound was like a small bell ushering in this new, unknown life. This diagnosis had ransacked our lives. It was only after picking through the debris, the scraps, that we were able to understand that what was left was unbreakable.