I survived breast cancer. My first marriage did not.
No one talks about that.
How when cancer comes, your life suddenly snaps into sharp relief, and what you thought you could do if you just tried hard enough, for just a little while longer, until the kids get through high school, you can’t. With cancer, you find yourself dropped into an ocean, choppy with waves, no land in sight, and all you can do is grasp for things solid, those things that are dependable, trustworthy. You hold onto them, literally, for your dear life.
Everything else – all clever artifice – must fall away – as though turning to ash, impossible to be held, a powder blown into wind and gone.
* * *
My daughter Katie is in Disney World this week, on a school field trip with her sophomore Marketing class. Katie has been so excited in the weeks leading up to this excursion. She is a Disney lover for sure, she has been to the Florida theme park twice in her life – first as an almost 4-year old donning her sparkle princess gowns, traipsing park-to-park-to-park in pink Mouse ears. The second and last time was in January 2007, after my first 9 months of breast cancer treatment – two surgeries, 6 weeks of daily radiation and then a series of monthly shots of a some super-expensive drug that sent my body cruelly and immediately into menopause.
That Disney vacation was like a “Make-A-Wish” trip, something happy to share with the kids, on the brink of our marriage’s terminal diagnosis. For I already knew inside my heart, before uttering a word to anyone else, my husband included, that our marriage was over.
That was to be our final journey together as a family, to play in that magical place we always found the most joy in, the most love. In fact, my first husband and I honeymooned there, spending our first night upgraded to the Vice Presidential suite of the Grand Floridian hotel. [But, you know, you can’t tell people this story anymore. After divorce (and a beautiful & healthy remarriage) you’re not supposed to speak with sweet remembrance about another relationship’s beginning (even one of nearly 15 years resulting in 2 children who fill your heart everyday with more love than you can bear). It feels socially inappropriate to speak of the happy parts, the love-filled, hopeful parts, the “once was” parts – when a county court has deemed the marriage dissolved (and more than that, you were the one who filed the petition to end it, to sentence it to its long and painful evisceration of a death.]
Both of us were actors.
I, his Cinderella, he, my Prince Charming. The year of our engagement, we were actually cast in a play of this fairy tale. We took to the stage – waltzing together at the Ball – creating this beautiful illusion for an audience of children who believed so strongly that we were really these characters. Maybe we did, too.
This man I loved (and still love) breathed life into me, into the stories I was writing and imagining. On our first date, he set them up there for me to see – there on some grand movie screen in his beautiful mind, casting the roles, telling me how the costuming would be, the colors, the music. Together we were a whirlwind of creativity and magic and storytelling and the art of imagination.
At our story’s beginning, we were these things. We were hopeful and in love.
Two days ago, I texted my 15-year old daughter when she first arrived at the Magic Kingdom, her first day at the park:
“Disney has a special place in the story of your life. Your dad and I were always happiest there. Grateful we could share that joy with you.”
Later, I received the following texts back from her.
“Tonight was a lot harder than I thought”
“What do you mean?”
“Just thinking about how our family used to be”
“Made me sad”
“It makes me sad still too”
“Yea it was just a little hard watching the fireworks because that’s the part I remember the most with you guys”
It was just really hard to think about how happy we were and now it’s so different.
It is hard. You wish it could be back that way, I know.
It was just something that hit me while seeing happy families at the park.
And sometimes feeling everything is a blessing but also a curse because feeling everything messes with your head a lot.
I love you. And I am glad you feel everything – even if it is difficult.
Oh, and I love you too.
A reflection written (hesitantly) after yesterday’s visit to the Loyola Cancer Center for my annual mammogram, which was clear. My husband Mike drove me there, and waited with me, because he knows how scared I am, even when I try not to show it. I am still scared. I think I always will be scared. For when that cancer diagnosis happened, my whole world changed, as did the world of my children. As did the world of my first husband, whom I loved (and whom loved me as best he could, with what he had to give, having lost his mother to ovarian cancer less than a year before meeting me.) Seriously, the two of us had no business getting married. We were young, and hopeful, and believed in the fairy tale so much. I will never regret the choice to marry him, foolish as it may look now. I regret nothing. Even sharing this story with you today, as hard as it was for me to hit the Publish button now.