I had my first cancer epiphany before I knew for sure that I had cancer. I was on the Q train, crossing the bridge from Manhattan into Brooklyn. I was looking at the Statue of Liberty, telling myself (as usual) that I wasn’t properly appreciative of the view. Even when things were going well, this tended to ring false. The day I had my epiphany, I couldn’t even get through the thought. That view — who the hell cares. I took my phone out. Again.
One thing that’s important: there were texts that day. I hadn’t posted anything on social media yet, but enough people knew I was being evaluated for lymphoma that I was getting a steady trickle of check-ins. If I’d wanted to, I could have felt loved and supported.
Instead I stared at the home screen. Nothing from the Squirrel.
I was hung up on the Squirrel, and he was hung up on his ex. We’d dated for a couple months, called things off, then gotten back in touch. The day I found out that I realistically had cancer, we’d made plans to meet near his work so he could return a book he’d borrowed. When we made those plans, cancer wasn’t on my mind. I thought I had an infection and the doctor was going to give me a prescription for antibiotics.
When he came outside I was already crying. We went out for tea, then dinner. He asked me to let him know how things turned out. Two days later, after a surgical consult, I told him it didn’t look good. He said he’d make weed brownies for us. Weed brownie film and book club. He said, did you laugh even a little bit?
I pulled up the last round of texts. From him: how are you? From me:
I made myself stop looking at my phone. I’d sent the last text on Monday morning; now it was Thursday afternoon. I had a doctor’s appointment in about 20 hours. I was going to find out for sure whether or not I had cancer.
I started another round of familiar thoughts. He’s busy, he’s overwhelmed, he just can’t.
But I never would have sat on a text like that. He was sitting on it, and no amount of empathetic thinking was going to make me feel less abandoned.
I read somewhere that in New York, you can weep on the subway in private. Or was it in peace? Regardless, that was one part of city living that had come easily to me. Tears blurred the view of the statue and I thought, this has happened before. I meant it exactly. On this bridge, the statue at this angle, the slanting sun this shade of burnt orange.
Considering my dating history, those crying spells on the subway weren’t much of a surprise. I was flailing around in a pattern I couldn’t seem to break: If someone gave and withheld affection at unpredictable (and hence, addictive) intervals, then theirs would be the only validation that mattered.
That was why I had dashed out quick responses to my friends and parents when they told me they were thinking of me and loved me, and was now spending a long subway ride crying over the text that the Squirrel had not sent.
Then something happened that had not happened before. It happened because I knew that in 20 hours, I’d realistically hear that I had cancer; and it happened because the Squirrel also knew this, and had somehow still decided to disappear. I thought:
If life is just unending misery, I want to opt out.
I sat with that thought. The statue was to my left, then straight ahead, then receding to my right. It wasn’t even a minute. But it was an almost-minute of my life that I spent unsure of whether I wanted to keep living.
That’s when I had the epiphany. The phone was still in my hand, showing that last unanswered text. The sun was still orange, my cheeks still wet. The statue was about to disappear. I thought:
It could literally kill me, loving men like him.
I don’t remember feeling panicked or anxious before the epiphany, but I do remember how calm I felt after. My mind falling into salt water, the thoughts that had been too heavy to bear suddenly becoming weightless.
I scrolled through my friends’ texts and emails. I slowed down and read them, then reread them, just like I’d read and reread my unanswered text to the Squirrel. I listened to voicemails I’d been ignoring and saved the messages.
I still cry on the subway, especially on the bridge over the East River. Sometimes it’s self-pity. Sometimes it’s good crying, like when I’m touched by a gesture from a friend or mentor. Sometimes I find myself crying over the Squirrel, and I have to claw my way back to my epiphany and also try not to berate myself for forgetting it in the first place. I squint in the orange light and run my fingers through the thick hair that is still on my head and read texts from friends who care and touch my swollen lymph nodes. The statue recedes and I understand that I will forget my epiphany and long for the Squirrel and have to claw my way forward, again.
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