When my wife Cathlin and I were married the ceremony was part tradition and part theatre. The wedding was held at Judson Church in New York city. Cathlin wore a red dress for the occasion and we walked down the aisle together, entering the church already as a couple.
About halfway through the service, a very tall man stood up in the back row and began waving his arms and yelling, “Wait. Wait. What about the objections part? What about giving our reasons why this couple can’t get married?”
Everyone turned in horror. My mother, seated in the front row, went white.
The man left his seat and made his way up the aisle, still ranting about objections. He approached us at the altar and then, after giving us a wink, he turned to face the congregation.
“Isn’t that a silly tradition,” our friend Paul said. “How about we flip it and instead give reasons why this couple should get married.”
For the next 10 minutes, friends and family stood and testified to why Cathlin and I were made for each other. The reasons varied from we were both short to we both looked great in a red dress (a story for a different essay). But mostly it came down to how well we complemented each other.
Last October we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary by leaving the kids with relatives and going back to New York city. We stayed at the Washington Square Hotel just a few blocks from Judson Church and attended services there. Seated once again in that beautiful space I thought back to our wedding day, the overwhelming joy of it and especially that moment when Paul had surprised our loved ones and they had publicly embraced us.
On our anniversary it never crossed my mind to recall a different moment in the service: “I take you Cathlin to be my wife, in sickness and in health.”
A wedding day feels so far removed from disease or any misfortune. Even great-grandpa, at age 92, is seen doing the chicken dance with the six-year-old flower girl. Everyone present has spirit and vitality and nobody more so than the bride and bridegroom.
However, the reality of aging awaits us all, just as the unforeseen, yet in many ways just as inevitable, battles with disease do too.
Two weeks after our anniversary weekend, at the age of 43, Cathlin was diagnosed with breast cancer.
We are now seven months past that day of the diagnosis. In the interim there have been many surgeries and chemotherapy. Only radiation remains. The prognosis remains quite good and Cathlin’s doctors are pleased with the journey so far.
When anyone asks me how we are doing, I always answer that it has been a tough slog, which it has been. And yet there have been moments of beauty along the way too.
Date night, that mythical nirvana held dear by parents of small children everywhere, never really happened. We were too busy, too tired, the kids got sick, the baby-sitter eloped, it was always something. Chemotherapy weekends, on the other hand, we have never missed.
Every three weeks for the past four months, Cathlin and I traveled to Boston, just the two of us, and after she received her infusion of chemicals, stayed for the weekend. The after-effects would not completely take effect for 48 hours and so we had time to truly be together before Cathlin left us; my words for what chemo does, turning her into more of a ghostly presence laid out in bed or on the couch than a wife or mother.
In Boston, each moment had a heightened clarity, whether signing a health care proxy or watching bad TV in a hotel room. Sure, I would welcome the weightless moments of a date night dinner or movie, but also know that those memories would not reverberate through our lives like the scene of Cathlin praying over her chemotherapy drugs, “sending them my love,” while her oncology nurse, Samantha, and I bowed our heads and stood silently next to her.
One weekend we made our way to The Salon on Newbury street to meet with the owner, Pat, who has been making wigs for over 30 years, her customers mostly cancer patients and transgender clients. We walked through the front room, a huge loft with so many glass windows looking out onto Newbury street, and passed the regular patrons getting ready for dates, weddings, or just receiving their monthly spruce-up. They all seemed impossibly beautiful as we made our way to the back room where there would be no windows and the doors remained closed, shunted it would seem to the margins of society.
And yet the tenderness shown to us in that room, from both Pat and the stylist who joined us and told us the story of her own mother’s struggle with breast cancer, made it seem as if this really was the place we wanted to be. Actually, wanted is not the right word, because we would have wanted anything but to experience this journey, and yet I cannot deny being brought to a place of feeling I have never known before.
Another memory. After Cathlin’s surgery, when she could not raise her arms above her waist, I would take the kids to school each morning and then return to the house to help her bathe. I sat on a light blue Ikea stool outside the bathtub, just as I do when washing the children each evening, while Cathlin tried to find a comfortable position, leaning forward to receive the full breadth of the warm washcloth on her shoulders. After a moment she would raise her head and I would massage her bare scalp, shampooing the skin and rinsing her head with cupfuls of water.
This daily baptism was for us alone, no children or family present.
Cathlin’s baldness was near total, only a few especially tough hairs remained, including one extremely long one, about four inches, that continued to blossom just above her forehead. It was so slight as to be almost hidden. Each night the children, Hardy, age seven, and Eirene (aka Pickle), age four, would play a modified version of Where’s Waldo, refusing to go to bed until they had found and stroked this one elongated and elegant hair.
We have been open with our children during every step of this journey, and it has been the right decision for our family, and yet being open, especially with kids, does not simply lead in one direction, an embracing of the difficulties and coming out the other side stronger. Children have a way of revealing how life often chooses to creep quietly around to the blind side, preferring surprise and a punch in the gut to a fair fight.
In March, during the run-up to her fourth birthday Pickle told us she didn’t want to have a party. In fact, she didn’t want anyone to take notice of the day, whatsoever.
During our trips to Boston Cathlin’s sister Cecilia traveled from New Jersey to stay with the kids so they could sleep in their own beds and retain some level of normalcy while Mom received her chemotherapy treatments. It was to Cecilia that Pickle finally confided her reason for not wanting a birthday.
“Pickle is convinced she will die when she turns four,” Cecilia told us over the phone. “She says four is old and that is what happens when you get old.”
About a week later, during the end of our nighttime routine, Pickle turned to me. The room was relatively dark, with just the glow from her butterfly night light highlighting us lying together in her bed. Her pillow is quite small but we have found a way to share it when reading books. Above us hangs her bower, not unlike a cascade of mosquito netting, giving the sense of being cut off from the rest of the world, just the two of us floating behind a scrim of white.
“When will I die?” Pickle asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That is not the way it usually works,” I hedged.
“Dada, I want to die before you. That way I won’t have to miss you.”
I wanted to tell Pickle then that she would never die, that she and I and Mommy and Hardy would live forever and never have to face sadness or illness, either. But, of course, this will not be the case.
And so I said nothing and just hugged her tightly until she fell asleep. Later, seated by myself in the dark, I thought back to that moment at Judson Church when our loved ones stood and testified before Cathlin and me.
There are so many reasons why Cathlin and I married. Many I can articulate easily, and then there are those other reasons, the ones beyond words. Some are carried in the blood and breath of our children. Others float in front of me every night when I look at Cathlin lying asleep next to me, bald except for that one long hair which refused to die.