February 14, 2010
I know it’s cliché to wax poetic about one’s lover on Valentine’s day but I don’t care. I’m seizing the day—every last gooey, sugary, chocolate-covered drop of it—to blog about Mary.
Like good lesbians, we met in San Francisco’s Mission district. She was gathering herself for the leap to grad school in San Diego. I was working at Sunset Magazine. Strangers, we arrived simultaneously on the doorstep of a friend’s party and chatted as we waited to be buzzed inside. She didn’t know it, but I’d trailed her down Valencia Street. Her red raincoat bobbing and weaving in front of me. She exuded a sense of upbeat urgency and I caught myself wondering who she was…wondering if we were going to the same place…wondering how she walked so fast! When I finally caught up to her, in front of our shared destination on Bartlett Street, I was smitten. She didn’t know me yet she held my gaze with a warmth, openness, and authenticity I’d rarely seen. This woman had her shit together. She had nothing to hide. I was in awe. Soon, I would be in love.
That was more than eleven years ago, and, whoa Nelly, it’s been a wild ride. Like most couples, we are the yen to each other’s yang. We love each other like crazy, drive each other nuts, and spend more than our fair share of time in therapy figuring out how to ride in tandem—each motoring toward individual and shared goals with no one getting run over in the process. We’ve chipped away at some big life lessons, but my cancer diagnosis felt like skipping from 8th grade to college in “relationship school.” Every day, or so it seemed, we blew through another grade. As our intimacy deepened, layers of fears and insecurities sloughed away.
The first welcome casualty was my decade-old fear of finishing second place behind Mary’s job in the race for her affection. The minute the shit hit the fan, Mary dropped everything. And I’m not talking about the average person’s “everything.” Last winter, Mary was on the brink of tenure—a six-year-long slog toward the finish line in a cut-throat academic job that left little room for error. (And by “error” I mean taking time off to care for your partner.) Academia is a relationship killer and we were limping toward the finish line, bandaged and bruised but still together, when the C-bomb dropped. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mary put her work aside to go with me to every appointment, research treatment options, contact surgeons, answer the phone, walk the dog, run out to fill prescriptions, change my bandages, and empty my drains. And she wasn’t just a nursemaid, this woman was by my side mind, body, and spirit.
My anxiety was show stopping. Every morning, I’d wake up before dawn to ruminate about my impending death. Without fail, Mary would wake up, gather me in her arms and talk me off the ledge. She’d help me round-up my shiny new collection of cancer fears, pack them up in a box, tape down the lid, and stow them on the top shelf of my mental closet. Day after day, morning after morning, she led me out of my dark place with patience and compassion.
When I hit rock bottom, I packed up my emotional bags and checked out of my body. That escape route that was only made possible because I had Mary to lean on. And lean I did. That weekend she drove me to Louisville to see my family, sat through a 2-hour visit with an alternative practitioner without batting an eye at his bizarre treatment approach or his stratospheric rates, stood in a line (20-women-deep) for a dressing room so I could try on a pair of jeans to fit my new cancer-fit figure, and, on our way out-of-town, drove 20 minutes in the opposite direction to buy me formaldehyde-free nail polish.
Maybe, most amazingly, is that through it all, she never let me see her sweat, never let me feel like a burden, never made me feel like my mood swing, fears, and mental check-outs were anything other than 100 percent normal and acceptable. She never added her own fears to my own raucous pile. Instead, she skillfully caught each one by the tail and caged it until she could release it safely in the company of a close friend or family member.
After more than ten years of loving this woman, I am still in awe. And I am more in love than ever.