Now I grant you, when you're already 1,146 words in, cancer can be rather a bomb to drop on a story, especially when it serves only as more exposition and is really somewhat beside the point. Allow me to detonate: I was diagnosed with a breast cancer; it was small and intense and manageable.
Of course, when I say manageable, I mean by me. At the ping of diagnosis, Will's busy brains etiolated into vapor. It wasn't that he couldn't cope—it was that he wouldn't. My girlfriends went with me to doctor consultations; my best friend, Jacquie, accompanied me to my surgery. My surgeon, Dr. Nowak, assumed that I was a single mother. I am pretty sure that my oncologist, Dr. Tepler, thought I was a lesbian. The former had referred me to the latter, and I pictured the two physicians, running into one another at breast cancer conferences, exchanging small talk.
"By the way, I've started treating that patient of yours, Ellen Tien."
"Oh, right—the single lesbian mother?"
When my radiation treatments began—8 a.m. appointments at Weill Cornell's Stich Radiation Center—Will officially took his bolt of denial to the tailor and had it made into a three-piece suit.
"Look at you, all dressed and ready to go," he would say gaily on a Monday morning (he is a morning person in the worst way). "Where are you headed?"
Radiation, I would say.
Tuesday: "Where are you off to on such a nice morning?"
Radiation, I would answer darkly.
Wednesday: "What are you-?"
It was the same for six weeks.
If I have to do this every day for the rest of my life.
But if there is a gist to this part of the story—and I am a terrific fan of the gist—it is that in a marriage, what seems like a brute transgression on the outside can transliterate to merely a workaday blemish on the inside. The gander's indolence or neglect might appall the flock but may barely register with the goose.
We had an ordinary marriage; cancer made it extra ordinary.
The blizzard passes; the ground is still white, only more so.
If I couldn't quite commit to forgiving Will for his absenteeism, I could, in a specialized way, get it—or at least I would have to say I did unless I was willing to play the fool who stayed with the fool who played her for a fool. Getting it was the toothpick that could save the card house, the international symbol for truce. How many times had I oppugned Will for a perceived disregard, a forgotten quart of milk, a veiled insult from a member of his family, only to be neutralized: Okay. Okay. I get it.
So the business of living went on as usual, although now slightly hobbled by the realization that life was no longer a simple matter of three poop questions. But since the evolution of a relationship is less about forgiveness and scatology and more about the accumulation of real estate, we forged onward and bought a weekend house in the jungles of Connecticut. For the next year, we excitedly huddled together in the glow of a collective project, connected by the inherent promise found in paint chips and carpet swatches and fixtures.