Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I woke up from my first surgery in a dimly lit space, surrounded by yellowish curtains. You think a hangover is bad; at 23, I’d just been diagnosed with liver cancer, and the surgeon had lopped off half my liver, taking the tumor with it.
My sister stood on one side of the cot, while my new-ish boyfriend, Tim — dark hair, brown eyes, a lopsided smile that always made me smile back — stood on the other. “Christina,” I said, fuzzy from the anesthesia. “Did you know that Tim and I are engaged?”
“You are?” she asked, looking at Tim, who shook his head very slightly. “Wow, congratulations!”
“Thank you!” A few beats passed. “Wait, no we’re not.”
Tim and I had only been seeing each other on a regular basis for a few weeks when my gynecologist noticed a lump in my abdomen. An ultrasound, and then an MRI, and then a blood test confirmed that a grapefruit-sized tumor had grown on my liver, and I would need surgery to remove it.
By the day of the surgery — which, incidentally, fell on Valentine’s Day 2013 — we’d already sped through the usual milestones, swapping “I love you” and spending entire weekends together. It was like a race against the tumor. Then, as I recovered from surgery, we settled into a routine: Either I went to our hometown of Poughkeepsie to see him (with a cursory stop at my parents’ house), or he took the train to New York City, where we mostly hung out with friends and ate brunch.
But I fell even harder after he stuck by me through that first surgery, even sleeping on the floor next to the hospital bed. (“He’s the one!” I told literally anyone who would listen to me — which was everyone, because people pity-listen when you have cancer.)
And it got worse when the cancer returned. Two years later, I was back on a surgeon’s schedule for the day. When Tim accompanied me to the hospital, the pre-op nurses mistook him for my husband.
“I mean, he might as well be,” I said, beaming. At that point, I’d completely transformed after a few months of chemo: My head was as smooth and shiny as the back of a spoon, my skin had taken on a greenish tinge, and I was skeletal. But if Tim had noticed that I’d turned into Gollum, he didn’t act like it. At the nurses’ mistake, he just chuckled and held my hand. “One day,” he said.
Even with the parade of tumors, he kept his cool about the cancer. But he never cooled on me. I don’t know how: I wasn’t one of those gracious cancer patients who suffer in silence. I suffered loudly. I once threw a slipper at my dad (I missed). I yelled at anyone who dared tell me that it was going to be alright (oh, are you psychic?). Tim was an easy target for that sort of thing just by being in my orbit.
But Tim never held it against me. Instead, he’d rub my feet, which were numb by then, a side effect of chemo. He’d kiss my bare head as if I didn’t look like Keegan-Michael Key. (Stand me next to Jordan Peele and no one would’ve known the difference.) And he stayed calm and cracked jokes with every diagnosis, when most 20-somethings would probably say “Sorry!” and head for the hills. I wouldn’t have blamed him.
He also didn’t tiptoe around me the way some people did, scared that being blunt or mean in return would be the last straw for my weak, idiot body. Like me, Tim’s a yeller, and he wouldn’t back down from a big blowout, like the time he insisted I call my doctor over a fever.
(He was right, too; the hospital later confirmed I had sepsis.) And it didn’t help that I found him especially cute when he was mad.
Seven months after finishing chemo, the cancer returned again. (Really, I only dream of having my cancer’s persistence.) This time, I needed a liver transplant. What stayed the same: I woke up in the ICU with Tim beside me.
“Hey, can I have my phone?” I asked. When he handed it over, I snapped a picture of him looking down at me, with one hand on my pillow and the other on my leg. He’s wearing a black T-shirt and a backwards baseball cap — his usual — and his face looks tired, relieved, and, frankly, a little annoyed that I’m taking his photo. I guess drugged-up me really wanted to capture the moment.
After that, I was back in remission. Life kept going, this time without cancer (knock on wood!). My sister got engaged. My hair grew back. Tim graduated from college — he’d taken a few years off — and began working at a restaurant. My brother proposed to his girlfriend. And then I broke up with Tim, realizing that the futures we wanted (me: kids and a house; him: a Stanley Cup for the Philadelphia Flyers) no longer lined up.
I spent weeks crying, leaving mascara stains on my couch, and wondering if I’d made a mistake. We’d been together for four years, and the days and weeks without talking to him were excruciating. In what I think was an effort to comfort me, people tried to assign him the role of temporary cancer guardian, ultimately destined to depart once the cancer disappeared. “He was perfect for you when you were sick,” one friend said. “People come into our lives for a reason.”
I sort of understand that thinking, if only because our relationship bookended my three cancer diagnoses. But this also makes it seem like he was nothing more than moral support with a side of sex.
Tim was more than just a boyfriend, although I don’t have a word for what exactly he was. I don’t know how I would’ve endured cancer without him. He kept my head above water when I was at my lowest, saddest, weakest self. Besides my immediate family members — who are legally bound to deal with me — Tim is the only person who’s seen the worst of me and loved me anyway.
A year’s passed since we broke up. We both have new significant others. But Tim and I still text a few times a week, passing music and dumb GIFs back and forth. He stopped by my parents’ house during the holidays, and when he ambled into the kitchen and hugged my mom and dad, I could almost convince myself that it was 2013.
It’s 2018. I’m not sick anymore, and I get out of bed on my own. But his relative absence still gnaws at me. When you have cancer, everyone talks about the new normal. It’s a trite way of saying that your life as you knew it is gone forever and you have to get used to a new one, one with scars and scans and the constant fear that cancer is going to sneak up and get you when you finally let your guard down.
Now, I have a new new normal, without Tim and the future I’d built in my head, the one where we get married and plan vacations and buy season tickets for the stupid fucking Flyers. Our new version of normal is a weird, tentative friendship. If I have cancer again — whenever that is — he might never know. Like the needles, like the constant doctor appointments, it’s just something I have to get used to.