Holy Shit, My Girlfriend Has Cancer
Cancer really breaks up the monotony of first date conversations.
Crystal kinda blurted it out halfway through ours. She wanted to get it out of the way. She said she had been treated for melanoma, but was currently doing well. I thanked her for telling me, and pretty soon, we were back to standard first date topics: hometowns, ambitions, siblings, and tattoos (hers—I’m the last person born in the ‘80s with none; she had a small paper airplane on her forearm). I was more interested in hearing about her time living in China. She was more interested in asking about my closest friends, and telling me about hers.
Cancer hardly felt like the most presently important subject. She didn’t seem like a sick person. Quite the opposite. She was lively, gorgeous, sharp, and extremely busy, working full-time for a large non-profit, while co-running a small non-profit in her free time. More than anything, mentioning cancer gave her a chance to talk in greater depth about her friends. One friend, who had a matching airplane tattoo, took care of her when she was first diagnosed. Another in New York joined her at every doctor’s appointment and took notes. Cancer seemed like an abstract data point in a fascinating person’s life. I was just trying not to blow it.
Before long, we were dating, and she very gradually filled me in on a few details of “the C word.” Mostly, she told me what she thought I needed to know. That she had a few scars—which I quickly stopped noticing; that her meds sometimes made her sick or exhausted—which was sometimes hard to perceive in someone so active and productive; and that she was a bit skittish about dating someone seriously—which warned me to let her set the pace of things.
By the time she was ready to solidify our couple status (with a note on Lisa Frank stationary, mind you), we were in a lovely honeymoon phase. We took a trip together. We met each other’s friends. I cooked for her. She gave me career advice.And then cancer became less abstract.
Crystal told me the news from her quarterly scans was “less than ideal” and asked if I wanted to cook dinner for her and Jess. Her friend with the matching tattoo had immediately flown in. They told me Crystal had brain tumors and said they’d put me in charge of food. The next day would bring gamma knife surgery (“Basically laser tag for my brain,” as Crystal put it, in typically colorful fashion) and the dozens of selfies she sent through Snapchat during it. Radiation would begin a few days later. Suddenly, I was not only part of a two-person relationship, but also part of a much larger support system. Whether this meant making a pharmacy run, taking her to radiation, or just making sure she took her meds on time when we were alone together, I was following orders from the people who were there before me, who Crystal had long trusted to be her partners in this. And this larger team allowed me to primarily be what Crystal wanted me to be: just a boyfriend. Because Crystal had such a strong support system in place, and because she drew boundaries and communicated so well, she was able to maintain a weird amount of normalcy in our relationship, even under wildly heightened circumstances.
Things weren’t the same, but dinners out together (sans alcohol) when she felt okay or movies on the couch when she was tired didn’t feel too different from normal. I was still cooking—and may I add, cooking for someone who’s extra hungry from steroids, and in her words, “eating like Ron Swanson,” can be kinda fun—and she was still plugging away at her career and giving me advice about mine, even during radiation. We still laughed and joked and exchanged flirty texts. We even laughed about how The Fault In Our Stars had come out just in time to be the worst date movie idea in history. Being together didn’t always have to feel like caretaking. When she wasn’t around, I knew which friends I could turn to. The same ones I told her about on our first date, just as she was leaning on the ones she had described to me. I quickly learned which people didn’t mind if I started crying in the bar. I was reluctant to turn to one close friend, who had lost two family members to cancer. Instead, he was there throughout to listen and advise, and to normalize things for me, like understanding before I did that Crystal was distancing herself from me a bit at one point because she was self-conscious about losing her hair.
What was most striking was that everything felt less stressful when she was around, because I was thinking about her and not it. Even with the power turned down a bit, Crystal was still Crystal, not some theoretical person fighting a terrible disease. One day, she didn’t feel like going into work between radiation sessions, so we both worked from my place. She gave me a pep talk about my new project and rattled off a long email of advice to a friend of mine who was getting a startup off the ground. Even the night before she died, she was updating me on new developments with her organization, China Residencies, and laughing over ice cream.
After she passed, I became all too familiar with the clichés and narratives about cancer. Some clearly wanted to paint our relationship as some sort of Nicholas Sparks romantic melodrama, when in reality, she organized her life to not be that. I’ve met people who’ve stood by partners through years of illness, but there are other roles for people in relationships where one person is sick. She had strong partners in her treatment before I got there, and while I was there for her, being the primary source of support wasn’t my role or what she wanted my role to be. She just wanted a boyfriend.
People also tried to soften the word “died” by saying “lost her battle with cancer” instead. I understand why people want to phrase illness and death in more elegant terms and talk about the nobility of sick people. But delicate phrasing can’t soften the inevitable pain and angst that comes with watching a vibrant person you love fall ill and die. And the cancer cliché distracts from the richer reality. Crystal wasn’t tough or courageous because she was sick. She was just as determined and strong when it came to work or travel or supporting friends or trying to convince me to use Google+. She didn’t die in battle. She died living her life.
The first time we had a frank conversation about cancer, Crystal told me, “I have an awesome life with a bad thing in it.” Though the bad thing raised its voice in Crystal’s final weeks, she never seemed to let it define her. She lived her life. I’m so glad she let that include me.