I’ve been told people enjoy my writing.
I know how narcissistic that sounds, but since I began blogging post-cancer, people have seemed genuinely interested in reading about a clueless girl dealing with her cancerous past, working through her repressed memories, swearing up a storm along the way—and then interested still in the “lens” of that same grown-up “girl-child” fumbling around New York City.
I’m very grateful for everyone who’s been reading and who has reached out with supportive words. Many have asked me since my very first blog back in 2012 if I’ve ever thought about writing a book, and obviously I have—I’ve had the thought “it would be cool to write a book.”
And that’s the extent of it, because I cannot write a book—at least not yet. See, writing a book (rather, writing a good book) would require me to get more personal than I’ve ever gotten before.
It’s one thing to write about sloppy drunken New Years’ Eves and subway train car mishaps. It’s easy for me to tell you “yeah it was really hard when I had cancer, and yeah I have OCD too and I struggle,” and you’ll think “oh wow, she’s so strong, I’ll bet it was really difficult, mad props, gurl.” (Or maybe you think “shut up, drama queen, get over it”—to which I invite you to scroll over to the little “X” in the upper right hand corner of your screen.)
No, the kind of book I want to write—the kind of writing on the whole that I’d eventually like to graduate to—involves a grittiness that I’m not quite ready for. It involves naming names. It involves sharing the most embarrassing parts of me. And most importantly, it involves exposing the really, really ugly parts.
There are a lot of ugly parts.
And not just ugly like, “oh yeah the throw up in the cab tasted like shishito pepper.”
Ugly like the narcissism behind dating a guy named Jesse for nine months who makes you feel like shit all the time, but hey, his name’s Jesse.
Ugly, like accusing your sister of only being nice to you when she needs to write a good essay about “overcoming obstacles.”
Ugly like locking yourself in the bathroom and smashing your bald-ass head against the door over and over and over again until your mom threatens to call a suicide hotline.
Yes, there’s a plethora of ugliness spanning the decade. And THAT’s the book I want to write. And let me tell you, its not an uplifting one. At least not just yet—because I’m still not a good person. I’m a better person. But I’m far from good.
I don’t have the guts to write that book yet. But I will. I’ve just got to work my way up to it—and start getting a bit more candid.
I think lately my grandmother has been trying to give me that push—from wherever she is. She’s been appearing in my dreams for the past week (two weeks, if you include the dreams where I’m at her house playing on the staircase).
One dream about my grandmother isn’t enough to shake me. I love her. She’s one of the best people I’ve ever known and when I dream about her it feels like a sign that she’s chillin’ around me. But more than a few dreams, and I feel the guilt.
The guilt that I ruined her entire last year of life. Destroyed it.
She died three days after the doctors declared my remission. She spent her last Christmas in a hospital with me. Her daughter (my mother), barely got to see her during her final year on Earth because of me.
And so goes the Grandmother Guilt Loop. It repeats and repeats and repeats until I remember her heart attack mid-year. And then the guilt switches focus.
It transfers from my grandmother to Sean.
Sean and I began dating in September of my senior year of high school—about three months before my diagnosis. We were both in marching band, and shared the same circle of friends. He’d been king of the Junior Prom and I always teased him about it.
I barely remember what we were like before December. But I remember the big boulder we used to sit on at King Park. We had many conversations there, and a fight once, too—a stupid high school argument I can’t even remember.
The last time we hung out before shit hit the fan was in his furnished basement. I had just come back to Syracuse from the All-State concert and was chattering away about how I’d swiped something from the hotel gift shop and then felt so guilty about it that I went and put it back.
That was my great drama back then.
A week later I’d had my biopsy. He came over the next morning along with a few others who’d gotten the “Jesse might have cancer” call. I remember there being coffee and chocolate milk and donuts and bagels, like a “welcome to the oncoming hell” reception.
I remember saying “if this is cancer, you should duck out.”
He didn’t answer.
When I was finally diagnosed on December 23rd he came to see me in the hospital after school and sat with me all night. I couldn’t move—could only lay on my stomach because of the position of the tumor, and I remember him sneaking me plates of snacks from the nurse’s Christmas party. He sat beside me while my parents got all the gruesome details of my condition from the oncologist. He distracted me from it, because I just couldn’t listen.
That night I whispered to him, “You didn’t sign up for this, Sean. It’s okay to end things here.”
He said, “I’m fine.”
If you’ve read my cancer survivorship blog you know what happens next: I devolve into a horrible, nasty, fire-breathing monster. Because what I hated more than the cancer, more than the chemo, more than the mouth sores and constipation and catheters and pills and vomit and the sound of children dying around me…was pity.
I guarantee you, friends and friends-of-my-parents-who-read-this-blog: if you dropped off food at my house, if you called our landline to check in on me, if you sent me a stuffed animal or a basket of Bath and Body Works crap…or GOD forbid one of those faceless angel statues…I spent at least ten minutes cursing and ranting about it. Maybe I did it right in front of you. Maybe you heard me in the background on the phone. Or maybe you caught me on a good day and I waited for you to be out of earshot before I hurled obscenities about your stupid charity and how if you ever brought your nosy ass back around here I’d unhook this mother-f***ing machine and beat the living hell out of you.
If you think I’m exaggerating…well…I wish I was. Because what I realized within three days of my diagnosis was if you hated me…if you thought I was a foul-mouthed, nasty little bitch…there was no way you could feel sorry for me.
Imagine being my boyfriend.
Imagine being the guy who can’t snuggle with his girlfriend or even really hug or kiss her because she has no immune system most of the time. So imagine you get as close as you can and sometimes, mindlessly, you stroke her hand or her arm ever so gently.
Now imagine she slaps your hand away and demands that you stop petting her because she’s not a f***ing puppy.
Imagine this happens A LOT.
Despite my development into bald Maleficent, Sean stuck by me. During my second chemo I developed a blood infection and was in the hospital for a few weeks straight. Sean would drive up after school and if he couldn’t see me, he’d leave notes with the nurses, all folded up on loose leaf in that high-school-note-passing way.
If I was napping he’d play games with my sister and Payton (my tough-talking, 3 year-old roommate who had leukemia and cheated at cards something awful).
He became a trusted member of my family. Eventually it was part of his routine to just go wherever I was after school. He’d run errands for my parents. He’d help my sister with her math homework. He’d sit and watch the same episodes of Family Guy over and over again with me.
So when my grandmother had her heart attack on the day I was supposed to have a 12 hour chemo drip, he told my parents to go take care of her—he would give up his Saturday plans to take me and sit with me at the hospital for my treatment.
Amazing person, right?
He most certainly is.
And I resented him something fierce. I didn’t realize I resented him at the time, but I know it now.
Here was Sean, again, to the rescue, but ya know what? I had never asked him to come to my rescue. In fact, I had tried to get him to go away. I gave him an out RIGHT from the very beginning, and maybe I should’ve just said “this is over.”
But now we were stuck together to the bitter end of this nightmare. I couldn’t break up with him after all he’d done and he couldn’t break up with me in the middle of cancer and so now we were trapped (ugly, ugly, ugly, right?). But the most f***ed up part is that neither one of us WANTED to break up. Neither one of us loved the other person any less.
We just didn’t want THIS.
We wanted the high school cafeteria and the prom. We wanted Saturday nights with our friends and fooling around in the basement. We wanted to date the people we had STARTED dating.
Instead, I was a very angry, and very sick little girl and he was one of my caretakers. Our Saturday nights were spent on my couch with him stroking my arm and me yelling at him to stop stroking my arm.
But on we plunged…Sean constantly by my side through all my antics. Antics bad enough that hospital staff sat me down and told me that there were too many complaints about my behavior, and something was going to have to change. I was going to have to be nicer.
You can imagine how well I took that.
But Sean was so freaking zen about it all.
Except for one night. One night when he really told me the truth about his life…we got to arguing about something. Honestly, he was probably petting me and I probably snapped. And he broke. I remember him saying “you have no idea how hard this has been for me.”
In the moment I was furious. “Please, Sean, tell me how hard MY cancer is for YOU?”
“Well, you’re not around anymore at school and it sucks! I know you can’t be there, but it’s still hard not having you there! Walking into the cafeteria and seeing all the other couples sitting together and I’m alone.”
I was silent as a stone. He continued,
“And you say some really hurtful things and you just have no idea how they impact people!”
“What have I EVER said to you, Sean!?”
“Remember when there were no beds on the oncology floor and you had to stay on a different floor and those doctors came in with the heavy accents? And you SCREAMED that someone needed to find you some doctors that spoke some goddamn English?”
Of course I did. I remembered every day, every hour, every minute, every second of this fresh hell.
“You know you might as well have been yelling at half of the people in my family, right? Half of my family doesn’t speak fluent English and you know that! I couldn’t believe you would say that, and RIGHT in front of me!”
Got me there, partner. I was an asshole.
It was quiet for a very long time.
I started to cry. He started to cry.
“I’m sorry I said that. I truly am. And I’m sorry that I can’t be at school…but I’m not twiddling my thumbs over here. I’m fighting.”
End soap opera scene.
And although the scene ends with me semi-apologizing, I just couldn’t offer sympathy, empathy, or anything like it at the time. Husbands and wives are torn apart by illness. Try being teenagers. It’s not “The Fault in Our Stars.” It’s not a tragic love story. It’s just tragic.
I feel so much guilt now when I think of Sean, because it wasn’t until after we stopped speaking that I could see how much pain he must’ve been in. How it wasn’t just my senior year of high school that was destroyed.
It was his as well.
We stayed together through my freshman year in college (his sophomore year). But no matter how hard we tried to be a “normal” couple again…we couldn’t escape our roles of “Jesse the patient” and “Sean the caretaker.”
We haven’t spoken in at least seven years, if not eight. For the first few years after our break-up I would try to reach out every once in a while and see how he was. After all—he’d been practically family. But I got the impression that it wasn’t really good for him to speak to me and eventually stopped.
I deleted him on Facebook in a frenzy of “cancer-versary” anger three Decembers ago. It made me—and still makes me, sometimes—so upset that the only person besides my immediate family members who knows the most intimate details of what went down that year has chosen to leave me and those memories behind.
And then I realize I’m not upset by it. I’m jealous.
I am so jealous that he has the option to put those memories in the past…but I’m forced to live with them forever. At every check up. At every twinge in my back. At every painful muscle spasm. And every time I set foot in my own home.
I can’t escape it…but Sean could. And I’m glad he did. He chose to fight the fight by my side, and that was more than he ever needed to do. So he should get to choose to leave it behind. I don’t know if he’ll ever see this, but if he does:
Sean—Thank you for everything you did for me and my family. Please don’t ever think we could forget. We never, ever forget. I said earlier that my grandmother is one of the best people I’ve ever known…you are, too.