I got married at twenty-two, when I was especially dumb. I wasn’t dumb to marry Toban, exactly, because that ended up being one of the most sensible things I’ve ever done. But I was probably pretty dumb because I didn’t yet realize that Toban was one of those great investment pieces that increase in value but seem like overkill. He was like beachfront property when I probably could have settled for a suburban condo. At the time, however, I mostly thought about how beautiful he was, how great he was at explaining the finer points of skateboarding, and how he would never lose his hair.
Now he rushes into my office and throws his arms around my neck, and all my words are pouring out.
“I have loved you forever. I have loved you forever. Please take care of our son.”
“I will! I will!” he cries, and I know it is true. But the truth is not going to help us anymore.
I call my parents on the walk to the hospital, but I have to stop and lean against a high stone wall for a minute. Toban puts his hand on my back to steady me. We are both gone, gone, gone somewhere else, flitting back and forth between now and where we used to be.
I tell my parents they need to find a place to be together and sit down, that I have been told that I have cancer and that it doesn’t look good for me.
“You need to give Zach to us! You have to change your will!” my mom blurts out, her voice shaking. I have been, coincidentally, drawing up a living will for my life insurance policy, a policy I will be denied because they will find out that I have cancer and reject the claim, a bet they no longer want to take. But right now my mother is confused. Her child is dying and suddenly, so is the whole world. She is desperate to salvage what is left of my life: my son.
“Toban will keep living, Mom. Zach can stay with him,” I say gently.
“Right … right … I’m sorry. Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” she says, and I can tell she is resolved to be my rock, but she is crying. They are on a trip to Toronto to see my sister Amy, and now they will scatter in the winds and find me. I will see my dad in the hospital when he strides in moments before my surgery. He will take my hand in one hand and stroke my hair with the other. This is my father, the impervious giant, who will never cry about my diagnosis. He will not allow it the dignity of defining a damn thing about his daughter and her future.
I call my sisters, and they dutifully sit. Our words feel garbled, burning hot with love. My next call finds my friend Katherine in the bleachers of a Vanderbilt football game, and she will immediately get into the car, a state away, screaming into the windshield. When I wake up from surgery she will be there, and my foggy brain will not recall that I never asked her to come. She knew I needed her. She will sleep in the hospital chair beside me, pretending it is comfortable, and using her no-nonsense voice with the nurse who won’t bring me ice chips.
But for now I am sitting in a hospital room, before surgery, somewhere in the maze of Duke University Hospital, staring down at my hands folded on my lap. A blue hospital gown is folded crisply on the bed beside me and machines chirp everywhere like crickets. I am alone for the first time since my diagnosis a few hours before, and the day is unfolding with brutal swiftness. Toban has raced home to tell Zach’s indomitable nanny about what is happening, and all my family is still in transit, and I can’t do anything but sit staring down at my dress, white with bright flowers and flouncy the way I like it. I love this dress. I can’t take it off. I need it for teaching.
My friends Jonathan and Beth arrive. Jonathan races through the door and pulls me into a bear hug. They plunk themselves down on my hospital bed and turn to me with looks of compassionate dismay.
“I’m going to need for you to burn this,” I say, finally, gesturing exasperatedly to my dress. “I can’t see it again. That life is over.” I am oscillating between hysteria and an executioner’s humor. “I’m just the luckiest girl in the world,” I say with mock enthusiasm before my mind skips to Zach long enough to send me into racking sobs. I double over crying. I squeeze my eyes closed and try to shut out the world.
“I just don’t,” I keep saying. “I just don’t know what to do.” The only things that feel real are their hands patting my back and the hospital sheets against my face. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“Die,” says Beth in a quiet voice.
I don’t know if it was a question or a fact, but I stop crying. Her word is a cliff, and I can see all the way down. Jonathan starts to reassure me, to fill the void and remake the world as it was, but all I can think of is her single word. Die. It is impossible. It is an impossible thought. I thought this life was only getting started, but now I am supposed to contemplate its sudden conclusion. I am supposed to imagine the end of my whirling mind, the slowing of my breath, a sunken vessel where my heart now beats. But, worse, it would be the conclusion of this thing I have built -- a family.
I have had two perfect moments in my life. The first was running down the aisle with Toban on our wedding day, and we burst through the church doors and stood, breathless, alone as husband and wife, gazing at each other like complete idiots. And the other was when they put Zach in my arms for the first time and we looked at each other like it was a conspiracy of mutual adoration. These are my Impossible Thoughts. These are my Can’t-Live-Withouts. I cannot picture a world where I am not theirs. Where I am simply gone.
Jonathan and Beth pray for me for a long time and put their hands on my head to bless me and kiss my wet cheeks before leaving, but not before I get Beth to wait a minute. I pull off my dress and put on the gown, clumsily knotting the ties at my back as she helps me. I hand her the dress. She knows what to do.
From the book “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” by Kate Bowler. Copyright (c) 2018 by Kate Bowler. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.