December 1, 2014
Big days usually start the same. An alarm is useless, but I set several nonetheless. By sunrise, I shuffle exhaustedly between restless sleep and incessant phone checks, my throat dry and head sore from nighttime gnashing.
On this morning, I wake up in a sweat – my nightwear, comprised of sweats and a massive duvet, severely overcompensated for the shitty insulation in my apartment. Not to worry, I strip down and set the kettle to boil. After a small breakfast, I realize it’s only 9:33. I’ve got nearly 2.5 hours before I start my first day at Thought Catalog. There’s nothing to do, and I have an unhealthy amount of nervous energy. I throw my sweats back on, slip on my sneakers and jog through the unseasonably warm streets of Brooklyn towards the bridge.
I met Emily on OKCupid a few weeks before both of us finished college. For friends that I’ve told otherwise, (I believe the story I usually go with is that we met at a bar on the Lower East Side) I was lying. I don’t know why I was embarrassed to have met my girlfriend on a dating app. Perhaps because my app of choice was more well-known for very kinky older men than actual matchmaking prowess. Anyhow. After a few awesome dates, then several more, the feelings started pulsing. I was impressed – she was passionate, intelligent, kind, and gorgeous. A relationship inevitably bloomed.
I helped her with job applications. She talked me through some really shitty times I had at my old job. Our relationship was simultaneously grounded in deep mutual respect and playful, invigorating love. We lay in Washington Square Park, we cooked and ate together, but we also leveled with each other and shared some very personal, honest truths.
One night she gathered herself and revealed an important one: Right after she graduated high school she was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive type of cancer called osteosarcoma. A bump had formed above her knee that she initially wrote off as swelling from cheerleading. When it didn’t go away, she underwent further tests that revealed a cancerous mass on her femur. After several rounds of chemotherapy and a surgery to replace the bone in her thigh with a cement rod, a year of treatment in total, she was declared cancer-free. She was free to resume her life, and set off for college in New York City.
“Gotta be above it” – Kevin Parker whisper-screams my adopted mantra into my ears as I pant my way down Grand St, strides striking the pavement synchronous to the orgy of wobbly synths and echoing drums. After a few turns I can see – and smell – the east river. Sweat clings to my clothing and obstructs my vision, but it feels fucking great. The bridge’s incline pushes down against me – I grip my fists tighter, lean forward, and sprint until I hear my pulse. The top of the bridge seems like as good a place as any to take a break. Deep breaths fill my lungs, my head starts to clear. I begin to feel sharp again. I head back down the bridge.
By August 1st, Em had moved into a new apartment in Bed-Stuy and landed two jobs: One as a nanny, the other as a fellow at the New York Aquarium. With lots of hustling around the city and carrying heavy items to the fourth floor of a walk-up, it came as no surprise when she complained of some pain in her ribcage. Probably just a pulled muscle or a strain, we both agreed. Still, it persisted, then got worse, then got better, then got way worse. I encouraged her to go see a doctor and get it checked out. Everyone will feel better knowing it’s something minor rather than assuming it is. She relented. The scan results came to her on the day I myself was prospecting apartments.
As I approach our second showing of the day, my phone rings. I hear the torture in her “hello” and my stomach sinks. The scan shows a shadow in her lung, the most common area of metastasis for osteosarcoma. They can’t be sure without a biopsy, but they believe the cancer has returned and spread to her lungs. My legs buckle and I grab my temples.
Incredulity is all I can muster. Tears start to well in my eyes and I feel lost. My peripheral vision warps and blurs. My stomach starts to churn and heave all at once and although in retrospect I’m sure it was me who was shaking, I felt perfectly still while everything around me shook violently. I’ve never experienced that type of physicality in emotion – there’s something deeply humbling about it. I tell my friend I have to leave and I run to her.
Feeling infinitely better, I strip out of my sweat-soaked clothes and rinse off. I put on some first-day-worthy clothes and head out the door. Four stops on the L Train later, I exit the Bedford Avenue stop and spring up the stairs two at a time. I’m excited, but there’s something deep in my mind pulling me down. I know what it is but won’t let it bubble up into my conscience, not fucking now.
The final diagnosis from her August scan went as well as a metastasis of an aggressive cancer could – there was a mass in her right lung, but a full body scan revealed that the cancer had not spread any further. Not to dismiss what was clearly a serious medical problem, but “all” she needed to do was have the tumor removed and she could resume her life – with frequent checkups of course. It was a surgeon’s dream – the tumor was reasonably sized and located on the back of her lung, pushing against her ribcage, making it much easier to remove with minimal invasiveness. After a three-hour surgery, she was awake and cancer-free.
Em is nothing if not fiercely independent. A few weeks after her surgery, she was back in Brooklyn, hustling between her two jobs, getting her feet back under her. She was like an eager young basketball player returning from injury – and I did my best to play the part of team trainer – it was my job to make sure she didn’t go too crazy and end up laid up in bed because she tore her stitches. I was rattled, for sure, but mostly I was just happy to have my girlfriend back and healthy. I was working as a catering waiter at the time so our schedules were out of sync, but we found time for each other. October was a sleepy month, just returning to routines and trying to recover from the shitty end of summer.
In the middle of an early November night, Em woke me up.
“You alright?” I asked.
“I think I rolled over the wrong way, I felt something pop.”
Shit. She could have pulled a muscle or popped some stitches. We turn on the light – no, it’s not the stitches. She takes a painkiller prescribed from the surgery and settles back into a light sleep.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind. I accepted my position at Thought Catalog and started prepping for an industry I knew nothing about. Em’s pain wasn’t subsiding. It would dull with rest, but any excessive movement or exertion would reignite it. I asked if she would see a doctor. If there was a torn muscle or some sort of clot or bursa, she needed to get it checked out. There were so many valid reasons for her not to want to see a doctor, but I knew she would do the same for me, so again I pushed, and again, she relented.
We got scans at the health center my mother used to direct. Em took the disc with the MRI results and headed down to Baton Rouge (her hometown) to spend a couple days at home before her appointment in Houston at a premiere cancer center where she received treatment when she was 18. A friend of her mother’s was a thoracic surgeon in Baton Rouge and volunteered to take a look at the scans to give some early insights into what might be going on. There was a shadow again, in the same spot but much bigger this time.
“Too big, too fast to be cancer,” was how he put it. It must be that there was a small tear somewhere and a blood-sac had formed in her lung. He thought they would most likely need to go in and remove it, but even that might have been avoidable. Straddling doubt and relief, I tried my best not to let it dominate my mind. I had a big day coming myself. Her appointment was scheduled for 10 AM CST at MD Anderson on December 1st, 2014.
I walk north on Driggs Avenue toward N. 10 Street trying to envision all the days that will start with this exact sequence. Shower, breakfast, feed the cat (if needed), L train, work. I pull out my phone and see a text from Emily.
“Hey, just had my appointment, let me know when you have time to talk ☺”
Finally, some good fucking news. I’m too excited not to call.
“Hey baby!” she squeaks, the words barely come out.
“Hey, what’s wrong? How’d it go?”
Silence. Not deafening silence. This one rings, high-pitched.
“Em…you’re scaring me…”
“Well, it’s not a blood sac,” she manages to choke out a short laugh.
“What? No no no no, what? What’s going on?” The world around me gets smaller.
“No, no, it’s your first day of work – we can talk about it afterwards!” I fucking know something is wrong, but her enthusiasm is disarming. Perhaps she’s just emotional and relieved. My mind quickly returns to the smiling emoji. Of all the confusing innuendoes those little yellow fuckers have caused, this was up there. She wouldn’t just put that in there if something was seriously wrong, would she?
“Are you sure?”
“Em, I can’t go through this day not knowing, I need to know what’s going on right now.” It’s 11:56 EST. I’m due at work in 4 minutes. The timing of the news is fucked up on a cosmic level. I mean, in August, I am on the doorstep of the first apartment I will ever lease when she calls. Now I am 300 feet from my first day of work, and my life is about to explode.
“I promise we can talk about it later, go, have a great first day at work!”
Ok, I’m not winning this one. I hang up and ride to the 3rd floor. Thank god it’s a slow elevator because my mind is all over the fucking place. I choke back tears, I’m terrified. I want to go home. I want to call my mom. I want to call Emily. I can’t be here. Pure necessity sucks me out of the spiral and I knock on the office door. It opens.
“Hi. Ezra, right? I’m Joe.”
“Hey Joe,” I smile and he smiles back. Wait a minute, he doesn’t know a fucking thing!
A pervading sense of calm comes over me. This is a feeling I come to know and cherish over the next seven months – overwhelming gratitude for the snug cocoon of a compartmentalized life. I stride confidently into the main room and say hello to my new coworkers. The rest of the day goes by as smooth as I could hope for. A lot of app installations and setting up desktop clients and getting acquainted with the various Seamless options mixed in with pangs of misery and anxiety.
It all falls apart when I leave at 6 PM.
By the time I reach my room, I’m a mess. Luckily I worked up the courage to call immediately. Em picks up and my lungs, apparently privy to the news before my mind, push what’s left of my breath out of me, one staccato pulse at a time.
She fights through tears to tell me that the shadow on her MRI was another tumor, this one much larger and much more aggressive. The cancer has spread to her kidneys and traces were found in her abdominal wall as well. I collapse on the floor – the bed doesn’t feel like where I want to be. Some people freeze and numb up when they hear devastating news. I just melted. I couldn’t stop crying. My mother is a nurse and also my rock, so I call her and ask her to come over. I tell her and…she just let me have it out since there was basically nothing else to do.
The prognosis is awful. They need to start chemo again immediately, but, barring a medical breakthrough, she will have cancer for the rest of her life. How long that is was, and still is, unclear. It was worse than I imagined when she first told me she had cancer when she was 18, it was worse than I imagined when it came back the first time, it was worse than I could have imagined when I walked into that fucking bedroom and picked up the phone. I was angry and scared and just so deeply fucking upset – for her, for me, for the situation she was now in. When the terror settled down, one thought remained: How the fuck am I going to go to work tomorrow?
I mentioned the “snug cocoon of a compartmentalized life” before. So, why blow that up? Why do this now? Because the weight is becoming too much to bear alone.
For a few months, I was able to distract myself and split my life up into neat little boxes, but that was doomed from the start. Now it’s all bleeding into itself and the only way for me to live anymore is to live all of it all the time. No more “Work Ezra” at work and “Weekend Ezra” at parties. It’s the same person, I’m simultaneously all of it. But I am where I am right now. This is a really difficult situation to be in, but I’m here. And it’s affected every relationship I have – with my coworkers, with my larger social circle, and with the people closest to me.
Before, it was nice to have a neat part of my life where I could spend 8-10 hours with people I enjoy, somewhere to not have to think about if they were thinking about it, or worry about it clouding their judgment of me. But now that we’ve formed relationships, it just feels dishonest. They now know me as a person and this piece of information can become part of their perception of me instead of dominating it. I feel similarly about my wider circle of friends. I have people ask me how my girlfriend is doing and I have no fucking idea if they know she has cancer, so I respond, “She’s good!” with a phony upward inflection. It’s ridiculous. I care about so many people whom I’ve never even broached the subject with, who either have no idea that this huge thing is happening in my life, or who do know, but are too scared to reach out to me (completely understandable). It’s even more daunting with my family and close friends. They’re all terrified of me. I won’t say a thing, you won’t say a thing. Let’s all just be fucking quiet and watch this happen without discussing what’s really going on here.
I did this to myself with my sober updates and blank stares whenever someone asks. No – if I’m going to do this, I’m not concealing it anymore for your comfort or mine, nor for any normative sense of boundaries. Fuck that.
This is the most isolating experience of my life as it is, and some of that is impossible to avoid. I’ve come to terms with that. But if there is any weight that I can shift onto the people around me in any small way, I’m doing it. If anyone would like to ask me how I am doing, or ask about Emily, that is absolutely fine. I might not feel like talking about it, and I’ll let you know. You might ask something insensitive and stupid, and I’ll let you know that too. But no more tiptoeing – not from me, not from you.