Features | Devotionals/Meditations | About LQ
Outdulgence and other Worldly Pursuits | Dancing About Architecture: Reviews
PRISM Editorials | PRISM Features/Interviews
Can't Live if Living is Without You
printer friendly version
A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with somebody in Nashville talking about life, love and the general hyperbole of youth, when we began talking about "my" struggle with Cancer over the past three years. In that conversation, one of those oddly un-premeditated bits of steroid-induced wisdom came flying out of my mouth, motivated, I believe, by a bit of reflection on a combination that old Harry Nilsson song "Can't Live (if Living is Without You)" and the traditional marriage vows.
It's a great song, full of all the overwrought, just-short-of-stalker-like infatuation that rules adolescence, drug addiction and most of college. And as for those vows, well I've come to the conclusion that nobody saying them for the first time has any clue at all what they're getting into.
An obvious example, of course, is the whole "in sickness and in health" thing.
On a gorgeous May 13 in 1995, both Sheri and I said those vows to each other, full of dreams of companionship, work that was meaningful and world-changing, guilt-free sex, an attempt at 'relevant' and genuinely neighborly Christian faith, perhaps a book or two about it and the accompanying speaking tours, and maybe one day buying a tasteful bit of a home where we could entertain, read, watch TV and laugh out loud at whatever we found funny.
I can assure you that we did not imagine--not even once--Multiple Myeloma.
When I looked across into the eyes of my lover and made my vows, in no way was I longing for chemotherapy, a permanent 'port' inserted just below my right collar bone to make I.V. easier, stem cell transplants, hairlessness, projectile vomiting, carrying a green tupperware bucket with me wherever I went for two months, or discovering new words and concepts like "neuropathy" and "most myeloma patients survive an average of five years."
I did not imagine having to leave my dream job in order to "concentrate" on my treatments and "getting well," nor did I dream of emerging from a year of treatments into a year of 'remission' with absolutely no clue of what I was to do, who I was, or what, if anything, I still had to say to the world. Where were the regular speaking trips? The ability to think and write quickly and sharply? The joy of a coming home from a day's work full of delight because I knew I had been excellent today? Where was the drive to have as much of that imagined "guilt-free" indulgence as a day could embrace?
On that perfect May day in 1995 I could not have dreamt, for all the depths of my wild and fertile imagination, of looking across the room at my lover and hating myself for being something far, far different--and less--than I knew that she had married, and wondering why and how she could stay.
I do not want to presume upon Sheri's inner-workings (I write for myself, not her), but I am sure that when she said those words to me nine years ago today she in no way was conjuring images of being met at the airport by a husband barely able to stand upright or walk and being told that the doctors were '99.9% sure' that he had an incurable bone marrow cancer.
She did not dream of spending the entirety of Spring, Summer and Fall making long daily trips after work to the hospital over our US Rte 30's "baja peninsula-esque" construction, carting alternative food offerings to me to prevent the otherwise quite helpful hospital from making me even more sick.
I guarantee you that as she made her vows to me in that Princeton, New Jersey church she harbored no dreams of cleaning puke off of floors (because sometimes all one's body has left of an immune system is the automatic reject button, thus not allowing you the time to travel the 20 feet from couch to bathroom on time but giving you the strength to trick the muscles in your stomach and throat into thinking they can launch things that far...).
She did not get all dreamy thinking of being startled awake at 3 a.m. from the sound of my wretching in the other room, then stumbling into the bathroom to get a damp cloth for my head and make sure that I was OK.
While sealing our vows with a kiss she was not lost in imagining me sitting on the couch for weeks at a time watching the TV Food Network and bad reality TV because I was too weak to do anything else--even read.
She did not dream of parents and in-laws visiting for weeks at a time to 'help' with caring for me, making any time alone, or alone together, or anything even mildly resembling privacy, a thing of the past. Nor did she imagine the guilt we would feel for resenting their absolutely necessary help.
She did not dream of staying in a job solely because she has excellect (thank God!) health benefits, or of abandoning all thoughts of joining friends for cocktails after work so she could hurry home to play nurse.
Nor did she hope for a time when she would look over at me in my bad pajamas and robe and wonder whatever happened to the plans of getting dressed up and heading into center city to attend our would-be subscriptions to local theatres, or hopping on the Acela for regular weekend retreats to New York, or just the simple dream of moving into a fun, funky little loft in the city.
She did not imagine spending days wondering if I'd be well enough to do the work I'd hustled up as a "consultant" (since I could no longer in good conscience look for a 'real' job), nor did she long for a time when we'd wonder if we'd have enough money in the bank this month to pay our bills or maybe even get to go out to eat.
On that sun-filled May 13 she did not look over at my tuxedo'ed self and pray that I would have the good sense to not take time-sensitive 'pro-bono' work that meant delays in billing other clients who might actually pay me. She did not wonder if I was talented or disciplined enough to make a living, nor did she offer her hand to me with visions of long periods of under-employment.
And I can promise you that not once that day nine years ago today did she dream of a time when she would spend evenings looking across the room at me and wonder who this sullen, frightened, pathetic loser she had married had become or was becoming.
Nope, none of that. Whatever we thought we understood that day about what we were getting ourselves into, we simply had no clue what those words we were saying--and believed--actually meant.
"For better or for worse,
For richer for poorer,
...In sickness and in health...."
And still, through all that was unknown and unimaginable to us on that day, over the last nine years together and the past three years of disease and treatment and recovery and reemergence and side-effects and insecurity we have still learned to laugh, we have learned to find place and time for our friends, we have managed to find a place in our faith and imaginations to pry something like a ministry and testimony from this suffering, we have found our hearts broken by those whose suffering far outpaces our own, we have discovered that even as we fought to not hate ourselves that we can continue to love each other.
And as for my pathetic self, full of doubt and occasional moments of dread and hefty doses of self-hatred, I am drawn back to that Nashville conversation and to that promised moment of accidental and unpremeditated wisdom and insight prompted from a drug addict's soaring melodicism....
"I can't live, if living is without you."
Like I said, that song used to conjure for me the rising, heart-broken, dreadful adolescent angst of unrequited love--and trust me, I had a lot of it.
But now it's something far more literal.
Looking back over the last three years of sickness, diagnosis, treatment, remission, recurrence, side-effects, job-fears, insecurities and self-doubting, wonderings and wanderings, and finally, marriage, I have come to one very simple conclusion which underscores everything that I can dream this anniversary does and ought to mean.
Without this amazing, godly, smart, smart-ass, gorgeous woman in my life, I am, today, a dead man.
Her patience and care has, without doubt, kept me alive.
And so, even tho' the steroids I'm taking this week make everything taste awful, tonight sometime I will raise a glass of something not nearly as intoxicating as her smile and offer this toast:
To the love of my life,
to whom I owe my life,
I can say only one thing and then pray that I mean it:
I love you.
My taste buds will be back to normal sometime this weekend, so after all the Bono stuff on has passed and we've spent our Sunday joining with thousands of others drawing attention to the nameless and the voiceless who suffer with HIV/AIDS or under the fearsome rule of poverty, we'll find some time to slip away for sushi or something equally delightful and sit together and enjoy a small celebration of the sustenance of love and faith and forgiveness.
It will be far from what the day deserves, but it will be enough, and I will weep, as I do right now and have hundreds of times over the past three years, for the love of a good woman.
Happy Anniversary, Sheri.
I love you.