It Happened to Me: My Boyfriend Got Brain Cancer

This isn't a cancer story, it's a love story.

Aug 20, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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This isn't a cancer story, it's a love story.

All of it. The whole thing. Even the part where cancer appears like an unexpected plot twist or a diabolical villain.

Our love story is not unique or important, except in the way that every love story is: entirely unoriginal and entirely personal all at once. We’re not the first people who fell in love, or the last, but we did and it is fucking awesome.

On October 31, 2011, my phone rang at work. My boyfriend never called me during the work day, and I wouldn’t answer anyway. We both work in advertising, are used to long and intense days making important and world-changing things like websites and banner ads and Facebook contests.

For some reason, though, he called and I answered and it wasn't him. It was a co-worker of his, a guy named Matt or Mark who I knew vaguely through his funny tweets, telling me that Aaron was having a seizure and wondering hey, is that normal?

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I wanted to know if he was joking, wanted him to be joking, insisted that he was joking and even after I heard him tell the EMT next to him that Aaron had never had a seizure before and has no medical conditions that I’m aware of, even after I stood up stunned at my desk and asked my boss where an ambulance should take my boyfriend if he’s had a seizure, even after Matt or Mark had relayed that information to the EMT and told me that he’d call again as soon as Aaron was in the ambulance, I called their receptionist to make sure it wasn't all a hoax.

It wasn't, of course, and moments later my boss was striding back into the photo studio with my mother (yes, my mother and I are co-workers) behind her.

“Grab your coat,” my mom said, “we’re going to the hospital.”

My mother is excellent in times of tragedy. She doesn’t believe in hysteria, and she stopped me short of choking on my own sobs as we pulled up in front of the dark doors of the Emergency Room.

“Go in there and be a woman,” she said. And even though I wasn't sure quite how to do that, I opened the car door and pretended.

Aaron and I met in 2006, but I don't remember that. At the time, I was visiting my hometown of Minneapolis after moving to New York City the way a lot of college graduates do: with two suitcases and exactly $400 in my checking account.

My mother was walking me around the ad agency where she'd worked since I was in middle school, taking me on a tour of eligible gentlemen that she not-so-subtly hoped would take the place of my current boyfriend, who lived with me in a shitty walk-up studio in Astoria, Queens.

Aaron wasn't an intentional part of that tour, but we met, and according to Facebook have been friends since 2008, even though our paths wouldn't cross again in real life until an October night in 2010, when I'd moved back to the City of Lakes and he properly introduced himself at a gallery opening. He was funny and normal and my dating-weary self felt some tiny flicker of hope come alive again.

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Just a year later, I was moving into his house and celebrating our anniversary in a hospital room.

In his 32 years on Earth, Aaron had never set foot in a hospital, but we spent the Halloween day of his seizure pretending it was life as normal. I Instagrammed him giving the thumbs up from the bed of the CAT scan machine, waited patiently for the cardiologist to explain the strange jumps on his EKG, held his hand and read funny tweets to him out loud while the nurses took vial after vial of his beautiful blood.

That night, after he'd been admitted overnight and the hospital room had swelled with friends and family members, I went home to grab our toothbrushes and pajamas.

Back at the hospital, his mother was on the phone in the hallway, whispering into the phone with wet eyes, and I knew all I really needed to know: His seizure wasn’t going to be a fluke, he wouldn't be going home the next day, we wouldn't be laughing about this anytime soon.

In his room, his friends met my eyes with soft, baleful looks and Aaron smiled sweetly while I crawled into his tiny hospital bed.

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“I have a brain tumor,” he said, gently tapping above his right eye, and I became blind to the rest of the world, climbing onto his lap, disturbing cords and blankets until my face was next to his, my hands around his head and my mind wishing it away.

In the next two weeks, Aaron had brain surgery to remove the tumor, was diagnosed with brain cancer and asked my father for my hand in marriage even though we had already promised ourselves to each other on Halloween night in that hospital bed.

There wasn't a ring. There wasn't a knee to take or a question to pop because really, there was no question. I didn't update my Facebook status and we didn't have a posed photo shoot where we pretended to be laughing at a hilarious joke in front of an "urban setting" like some railroad tracks or an abandoned warehouse.

There was just the two of us and a brain tumor, with only the heart monitor and his mother, sleeping quietly in the armchair next to the hospital bed, to bear witness.

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We were married days later, in a "small" ceremony at the gallery where we'd met, with 200 of our closest family and friends surrounding us and a couple hundred friends and strangers watching a live stream online. Our friends pulled together the decorations. Our family arranged the caterers. His uncle officiated and our friends poured in from across the country to form a motley crew of a bridal party in mismatched suits and dresses.

I wore red. He wore Nikes with the custom suit my brother had helped him pick out. We didn't have a first dance or a cake, and our groomsmen ended up in a late-night bar fight that resulted in a broken nose and a legendary story that even my former Marine of a father found impressive.

Before Aaron, I'd done (more than) my fair share of dating. I was a lover of love, if not of myself. I fell hard, fell often, fell even when it wasn’t love. I fell for big eyes, for kind hearts, for potential even where there was none. I fell for the idea of love, for adoration and friendship disguised as romance.

If I couldn’t fall, I pushed myself anyway. Pushed myself to give what I didn’t have, to take what was given to me even if I didn’t want it, to close my eyes and try to feel butterflies that weren’t there.

I was sure that love was hard because everything else about dating had always been hard. Relationships had all been challenges and accomplishments and devastating losses.

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Aaron is different, special, an entirely better human being than me in every single conceivable way. There are lots of boys who hold doors open for you and lots of boys who nervously bounce their leg on a first date, but there aren’t any other boys like him. He wasn't a challenge and he wasn't a mystery or a novelty, he was just there, in all of those subtle and meaningful ways that people write songs and poems and novels about.

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All of the cliched things that people say about life are true, and become even truer when something like this happens: it is precious and brief and cruel and sweet, even if it isn't fair.

I was never a girl who dreamed of my wedding day. I didn't have a Pinterest board of twee invitations and posed photographs, I didn't have a dream dress or imagine myself walking down the aisle of a cathedral. And what I got was much better than any of that, anyway. A wedding is a wedding, but I got a marriage and a partnership with a guy who has the same desire to kick cancer and life in general right in the balls.

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Our marriage is still like any other marriage because our lives are just like anyone else’s, except for the fact that we are facing down an invisible foe that is trying to set up shop in my husband’s brain.

 Aaron can’t stand that I leave toothpaste in the sink and I know that when he does laundry most of my clothing will end up irreparably damaged. I laugh at his cancer jokes (he washes down his medicine with a glass of water and calls it Chemo Grigio) and he eats all of the hippie, cancer-fighting foods I’ve read about on the Internet, even if they taste like sand.   

 Aaron doesn’t look like a cancer patient. Strangers seldom notice the faint scar spanning a half-loop from behind his right ear to the middle of his forehead, with one divot where the doctor let me remove some staples and the scar didn’t heal quite right (sorry, Aaron).

Ten nights a month, he throws back two chemo pills and I feel the effects blazing through his body at night. As he sleeps, I trace the outline of his scar with my fingers and imagine what his Vietnam-vet of an oncologist described as an air-raid of chemotherapy justice raining down on the terrorist cancer cells trying to hide in his brain. It helps.

Every two months, I sit in a generic waiting room while they scan his brain with an MRI. The hours between his scan and the appointment with his oncologist feel a little like walking the plank, and we pass the time with breakfast at a favorite diner and a visit to Minnehaha Falls, where we stand at the edge of the rushing water and hold hands and wait to hear our fate.

 He has four good scans and 7 months of chemo under his belt, but his relationship with the oncologist is like a second marriage: he’ll be seeing this guy in some form or fashion throughout his life.

I gave up Googling anything about his disease long ago, somewhere between 2 and 4 hours after his diagnosis when I realized that statistics and percentages and medical journals didn’t matter because we have already decided how this story ends: Aaron isn’t going to be OK. He’s going to be fantastic.