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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fear, Marriage and Separation

Before I got cancer, the plan was for Annie and I to get married. The wedding was supposed to be on September 24. It was gearing up to be a pretty big event, with close to 150 guests—over half of that number her relatives—and all of my best friends flying out from California. 
We had booked a venue, a historic Inn that bordered on her brother's property in Greenfield, Mass. We'd met with a caterer, tentatively planned a menu, and gotten all jazzed about serving our guests on compostable plates that would somehow be used to feed local cows the day after the party. I'd even bought a dress, an elegant, ivory-colored BCBG gown that perfectly suited my offbeat-bridal aesthetic. 
And then, less than a week after the dress purchase, came the Cancer Diagnosis. Once that happened, we almost instantly agreed to postpone the wedding. There were too many unknowns ahead, it seemed, to just carry on as planned. I imagined I'd be much too sick from chemo to deal with the stress of planning, not to mention actually getting through the event. And who wants to be a sick person on their wedding day? It seemed like the Obvious Choice to focus on getting through the Cancer Experience, and then come together with all our loved ones to celebrate not only our union, but my survival. 

Annie had always been certain she wanted to get married. (In my opinion, her parents' relationship is pretty much the shining example of everything a marriage should be, which provided her with a strong incentive to want to get married herself.) Ever since I've known Annie, I've known that for her, the idea of marriage has always been something to look forward to, the ultimate prize, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 
Such was not the case for me. For most of my life, I'd thought of marriage as something to be approached with much trepidation. I'm sorry to throw my own parents under the bus, but based on the example I'd witnessed growing up, I'd been under the impression that marriage ultimately resulted in extreme dissatisfaction, constant disappointment and inevitable strife. And I didn't see any of my friends' parents making it look much better.
I just didn't know what kind of person I'd end up being. Maybe I'd go the traditional route and end up married with kids, but it certainly wasn't a given. Maybe I'd end up being ultra-bohemian and perpetually single—somehow the two went together—or maybe I'd find a life partner and we'd agree that officially getting married would ruin all the best things about our relationship. 

And then I met Annie. I'd like to say that as soon as I met her, all the pieces fell into place and I suddenly felt sure that marriage=bliss, but it wasn't that easy to disassociate from all my previous notions. 
It was about a year or so into our relationship that she started her subtle little campaign. We'd be going about our business, and she'd turn to me and say, "so, have you thought about marrying me today?" To which I would hem and haw and try to smile and say "yeahhhh," in a tiny little voice. This went on for several months. It wasn't every day, but with a regularity that made it clear that marrying me was what she wanted, and she was just giving me time to get used to the idea. 
Then, in late September of last year, she Officially Proposed. I couldn't say I hadn't seen it coming, but on the day it happened, I wasn't expecting it. We were walking our dog along the dog path, and the sun was setting over the fields, and then she got all nervous, made a little speech, and pulled a ring out of Bella's doggy-backpack. 
The right answer, I knew, was Yes. I loved her, I wanted to be with her and I certainly didn't want our relationship to end, so there was no considering saying No. But it still seemed so. incredibly. scary. I can't say what exactly I was scared of, only that it seemed like once I got married, there would be so much more to lose. 
I continued to feel scared, even as months went by and wedding plans started being made. I was having a hard time making decisions about all the details, couldn't fully picture the event of our wedding actually taking place. I was terrified to admit it to Annie, but I wasn't sure I was ready. 
And then: Cancer. Postponing the wedding made sense for all the aforementioned reasons, but there was also a part of me that was secretly glad to have been granted a little more time to acquire the necessary feelings of readiness. 
(It would later be reassuring to learn that Annie did have her own share of fears about what our marriage would be like. Not doubts, she says, but fears.)

I re-proposed to Annie in a California Pizza Kitchen in Palo Alto. It was mid-June, the day of the Stem Cell Transplant meeting, one of the most miserable, overwhelming stressful days of this whole experience. My mom, Annie and I were sitting there, exhausted—Dr. Dad has always preferred exercise to food and had taken himself to a climbing gym instead—numbly going over all we'd learned that day. 
With the possible transplant now a certainty, it felt even more important that we try to take a trip back to Massachusetts in late August, in the little window of time between my last round of chemo and the transplant. I wanted a vacation from all the treatments, and to see the friends and family I'd so abruptly had to abandon when I got sick. Happily, the doctors had tentatively granted their permission for me to travel. We were talking about the logistics of such a trip when a new idea struck me and I turned to Annie.
"We could just get married anyway," I suggested, smiling at her. "When we go back?"
"Ok!" she said, without hesitation.
My mom didn't realize I was serious, but as the words left my lips I knew I was. And suddenly the terrible day wasn't terrible anymore. Suddenly we had something wonderful and joyous to look forward to. And I wasn't scared at all.

Does it seem obvious that confronting cancer would make marriage feel less terrifying in comparison? Perhaps. But I don't think cancer would have done for every relationship what it did for ours, and I definitely don't want to give the impression that I'm doing it because I'm afraid I might die. 
It's just the opposite. I plan to live a very long life, and the past four months have proved to me beyond any shred of doubt that Annie and I should live the rest of our lives together. I simply no longer fear that we might end up making each other miserable. Being on this journey side by side, facing every new challenge and twist of fate, loving each other and supporting each other, growing together and healing together, making each other laugh and having so much fucking fun together all the while, in spite of all the drama—there's just no way it gets any better than what we have. We are the lucky ones, I understand now. Fo Stage and No Stage for life.
Waiting for me to be "done" with cancer to officially merge our lives together had suddenly become absurd. We've clearly got the in-sickness-and-in-health part down. Why would we wait any longer? 

And so the wedding plans re-commenced. With only two months to put it together, and everything ultimately being left up to the contingency that there are no Cancer Complications in the interim and I'm healthy enough to travel, the original plans had to be heavily revised. The guest list was pared down to immediate family, the venue shifted to her brothers' backyard, the ivory BCBG gown replaced by a white cotton summer dress from Banana Republic. (The first one, a size 4, was purchased in the sickly era of Mega Spleen. I can't zip it up anymore and nobody thinks its a good idea for me to try and diet back into it).  Everything just seems like it's going to be smaller, and simpler, and I can picture it all perfectly.
Now, the only wedding issues I'm having are about abandoning any sense of vanity. Annie hates when I use the term "cancer bride," but there's no avoiding the fact that the chemo has taken its toll. I will be bald on my wedding day. My eyebrows, which have vanished, will be drawn on in the style of many of The Real Housewives of Millwood. My eyelashes will be fake, but hopefully natural-looking enough that I don't look like a drag queen. 
It's not what most girls picture for themselves, but I'm determined to make the best of it. (The fact that I'm not one of those girls whose been picturing her wedding day since childhood probably helps. I don't have any princess fantasies I need to let go of.) I have, however, chosen a silver crown to adorn my baldness, based on the idea that it's better to give it Bling than to try and hide it. The dress, while not as fancy as the first one, is lovely and country-ish, and fully appropriate given that we're now getting married in a hayloft. 

Annie left for Massachusetts on Tuesday. The plan was for her to surprise her family and join them for their annual lake-vacation in Vermont. It was supposed to be a ten-day trip, but as she was preparing to leave, several factors arose that made it seem like she should maybe just stay home all the way through to the wedding, which is Saturday, September 3. Her Massachusetts health insurance just came through, and she needs time to see some doctors for her own health and sanity. It's basically one of those situations where, in order for her to best take care of me through stem cell and beyond, she first has to be able to take the time to care for her own self too. If it has to happen back in Massachusetts, then so be it.
Then there is also the fact that her presence at home would be extremely useful to her family, especially her mother, who has so far been carrying all the wedding planning responsibilities on her own. Annie still hasn't decided for sure if she'll stay or not—we haven't been apart from each other for more than 2 weeks since we started dating—but missing each other now seems like just another brief hurdle for us to overcome.
It's quite a change to not have Annie by my side 24/7. The hardest part will probably be not having her to entertain me—and the rest of the nursing staff—during my last and final round of chemo. Without  her constant companionship this next month, I will be forced on an even deeper level to find my own peace in the stillness. 
Still, I know whatever inner battles arise in me during this time will be worth it. All the things Annie needs to take care of at home are going to make her a stronger, healthier, happier person, which will have the direct effect of making us an even stronger, healthier, happier couple. We will be a living example of the way that sometimes, being apart can bring you even closer together. 


  1. Just beautiful! Best wishes to you both for a long marriage filled with love.

  2. I second anonymous. So beautiful.

  3. Wonderful post, I cried. I wish you two the best and I love your plans.

  4. Have no idea how I found my way to your blog but I have been a faithful reader since day one.

    I am overjoyed to read this update! Not only is your health doing well but so is your heart. And as an oncology nurse, I believe very strongly in the power of love and support through all this.

    Keep kickin ass and takin' names! And congrats on the marriage. What an unexpected but beautiful outcome of this journey.

  5. Oh sweet!!! I am very happy for the two of you and wish you much happiness. Smart of both of you learning to care for yourselves and for eachother.

  6. Congrats! Very happy for both of you! Do your plans include a quick trip to Turtle Island? It is gorgeous at the lake right now. Mary would love to see you and I am looking forward to meeting you.


  7. How romantic! The wedding will be wonderful and the second I saw the two of you cuddled up on my couch together I knew you'd found The One. Of course, you could still register and let your friends send you towels, dishes and all of the other domestic necessities a married life requires. Or there's the honeymoon funding sites...

    One of my favorites quotes of all time is "Change should be spontaneous and flamboyant" because, really, true change doesn't happen any other way. So exciting!

  8. So happy for you both ! Ditto what Tisha said :)

  9. This post is beautiful. I love you and Annie so much and I am so happy for you both!

  10. Oh Kia, what amazing news...I am soooo happy for you both.