At 25, you’re usually thinking about relationships, not cancer. But I had to deal with both.
Growing up, I had no clear picture of what love meant. My ideas were based on turbulent experiences in childhood and a strict religious upbringing. I was not allowed to date. Holding hands was not permitted; kissing was forbidden. There were so many restrictions.
When I was little, I stayed at a women’s shelter with my mother and two brothers. In my mind I picture a dimly lit house filled with peaceful solitude. If I close my eyes I can see the character on the front of the nightgown they let me keep. If I breathe in deeply I can smell the aromas drifting from the kitchen. The food was abundant. My bed was warm and inviting. It was a safe haven, an escape from the chaos of the outside world, and a landmark in the development of my thoughts about relationships.
Needless to say, when I entered the dating arena, I had a lot of reservations. It was difficult for me to trust a man. I had trouble communicating and sharing my feelings. I hated saying “I love you.” I
moved from one unhealthy relationship to another.
I was 24 when I met John. He spent a lot of time convincing me that he cared for me; he told me I was beautiful and that he loved me. And one day I found myself telling him I loved him, too. I began to open up.
“Relationships aren’t so bad after all,” I thought. “I can share who I am and still be loved. This is healthy.”
Shortly after I had decided that what we shared was love, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The diagnosis threw me into a deep, dark ocean. I was drowning in waves of confusion, a jumble of doctor appointments and an abyss to the
unknown. So there I was: flailing arms, reaching out to John.
Surely John would save me. I was confident that he would let me cry on his shoulder and tell me everything was going to be OK. He would do this because he loved me.
John told me I was going to be OK. And then he broke up with me.
Nights were terribly lonely. “I can deal with cancer, but I can’t deal with a breakup,” I would sob into my pillow.
Questions bounced around my mind. How could John leave me when I needed him the most? I thought we were in love.
I began chemotherapy. My appearance slowly began to change. I lost my beautiful long hair; I gained weight. And there I stood: in front of the mirror, staring at a stranger that I alone had to love.
My reflection was foreign. Its head was bald. Its naked body revealed a scar that stretched across the left side of its concave chest, which lifted with
each beat of its heart.
I would lean in close to that reflection, about three inches away, with mascara wand in hand. I would peer at the three single eyelashes that
remained on my eyelid. And then I would brush those three lashes. I would brush them over and over again until they were thick with mascara. If I
could look like me again, I would be easier to love.
After treatment had finished and my hair began to grow, I refused to cut it. I had a thousand split ends, and at one point grew a curly mullet. I wanted so badly to speed up the process, so I went to the wig shop to get extensions. When the lady there told me my hair was too weak, I tried
on a wig, looked in the mirror and was startled by what I saw.
There in the mirror, was a glimpse of me before cancer. I tried so hard not to cry. My brother must have seen how much it meant to me because he bought me the wig.
Everything was starting to get back to how it was before cancer. My hair kept growing and I no longer wore wigs.
Men started paying attention to
me once again, but I was weary and suspicious of their intentions. Being told I was beautiful was a poor indication that they loved me. It was not enough.
I suppose I could have continued on that path but as chance would have it, I had a reoccurrence with cancer four years following my initial diagnosis. The news hurtled me onto a path
that lead me to the door of a painter.
He was working on a new painting, and asked me to be his muse. He was a wealth of information and knowledge, but still the most unassuming person I had ever met. He challenged me in new ways;
we spent a lot of time in the kitchen exploring healthy food, cooking and laughing. He would read me excerpts from his dream journals. I was intrigued by this gentle creature.
We began to spend a lot of time together. One night, after a failed attempt at finding a movie to watch on Netflix, he ran upstairs and came back down with a bouquet of beautiful white flowers. I was scared, I didn’t think I was ready for another relationship. But I was curious.
He began taking me on dates, magically appearing with tickets to
the ballet after I told him I had never been. Making the transition from muse to partner was not easy for me. I had with me a huge bag of emotions and fears. When we have a heated
argument he reminds me to breathe, and he holds me while I cry. Sometimes he cries with me.
When I tell him relationships are hard and all I want to do is run, he responds, “It’ll get better.” When my limbs are in pain, he massages me.
When I go to an important doctor appointment, he cancels work and is right by my side.
Neither he nor I are perfect, but we explore the many facets of love. There is so much to learn.
We patiently (him more so than I) remind each other that love is at its strongest when things are hard.
Difficult times are the true test of love.
Neither of us must run away. I am not happy that I had to experience cancer, but I am grateful that, through it, I have learned so much about love.
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