He does not believe in the supernatural but knows I do and so he, somewhat haltingly, told me the story, perhaps not quite believing all the details himself, of how one day, there I was in his house out there on the prairie. “A presence” is how he described it. I wasn’t an apparition, and I didn’t speak, I was simply, on more than one occasion, there.
When, a month later, he got a new job, moved to another state, and I started showing up in his living room there as well, he figured it was time to do just that. Our volatile relationship didn’t survive its torrid highs and destructive lows, but there was no denying we had some kind of cosmic connection from the moment we met, almost 15 years ago. Since this was also the day we both met Beyoncé (all three of us started working at the same television station on the same day), it was, metaphysically speaking, inevitable that the call would come the very day Beyoncé and I were together in New York, shopping for wigs and savoring our first face-to face gossip lunch in years.
“God has a funny sense of humor,” said Beyoncé.
My atheist ex, however, doesn’t get the joke, which is how we ended up this past Sunday night, a few weeks after our initial contact, having a conversation that started like this:
Me: How come you haven’t said anything about my blog?
Atheist Lover: I haven’t been able to read all of it.
Me: So you don’t like my writing.
Atheist Lover: I’m not even going to respond to that.
Me: What then?
Atheist Lover: It’s the subject matter. It’s difficult.
Me: So you don’t think it’s any good.
Atheist Lover: That’s not what I said.
Those are not direct quotes but you get the idea, not only about the dialogue, but also about why things didn’t work out between us. Well, that and something about me being fickle and noncommittal, but that’s another story.
Being a tough-edged newsman who recently lost his best friend to breast cancer, he got straight to the point, no softball warm-ups: What if? What if you’re not in the 80% who make it? Do you really think this is routine? Are you scared? Leave it to somebody whose last words to you were “please don’t call me again” to resurface out of the blue and bring up the tough stuff. Do people besides reporters do this?
After my January “this is not a death sentence” diagnosis/prognosis and the handing over of a pamphlet on how to execute a living will, death left the room for awhile.
I had to laugh so I wouldn’t lose it. I get that making fun of this is not for everyone. It’s not meant to be. I started writing because it was cathartic. It still is. I like that people read me and thrive on feedback. I am flattered when someone says they think what I write might help somebody else, but make no mistake: This is not altruistic. This is my therapy.
Atheist Lover, for one, is not buying my hilarious cancer crap. This is somewhat puzzling because he is a funny guy. I also believe I inherited irreverence from him and attribute much of my no-holds-barred ability to talk about damn near anything—in public—to the years we worked together. I don’t know if everyone would consider those traits valuable parting gifts from a love affair, but I do. (To be fair, I also walked away with a fine appreciation for art collecting, a really good recipe for swordfish and vivid, steamy memories of long weekends where we never left the bedroom, but that’s definitely another story…) It’s okay, though, that we don't see eye to eye on this. The Universe knows when you need to be challenged.
“It’s really not necessary to sound so chipper all the time,” wrote another skeptic in an e-mail.
I have had my meltdowns, yes—but not since I started chemotherapy. I am conserving energy by not dealing with anything I don’t absolutely have to deal with right now this minute. The other day, another 40-something single girlfriend asked if I harvested my eggs before beginning. (I did not.) Her tentative question made me realize I had completely stopped talking about an issue that consumed me in the early weeks of this whole mess. I did what I had to do—cried, researched, weighed my options, cried some more, and made the most thorough and thoughtful decision I was capable of in the brief time allotted to consider my future fertility without perilously delaying life-saving treatment—and locked the ramifications away in a box to be opened…later, after this is all over, preferably in a nice exotic locale where the fate of not having children might be equated with freedom instead of loss.
This is not denial; it is a practical approach that works for me. It lets me live my life as normally as possible while my doppelganger—the one with cancer—goes to chemo biweekly and spends her free time flirting with the other side, making spectral house calls to unwitting ex-boyfriends.
Am I going to die? Yes. But most likely not from this. The fact that cancer could potentially kill me is, for now, stowed away in the box with the baby. If I go through six months of chemo and radiation and the tests show it didn’t work, then it’ll be time to think about it. Either way, I’m pretty sure I’ll be glad I didn’t spend the next/last six months of my life obsessing about dying.
Am I scared? I am probably about as scared of death as your average person, which is to say even though I believe there is some kind of afterlife, and sometimes can consider this peacefully and in a semi-enlightened way, I am often utterly gripped by fear. The fear is manageable when death is back there in its place, lurking in the shadows with the rest of the ghosts, but sometimes it insists on getting all up in your face, like it did on Sunday, and not just long-distance at the end of the day, but at the start of the day as well, at brunch with Ellen.
Ellen’s dad has been gravely ill, in and out of the hospital, for months now. Our conversations always start with an update on how he’s doing. On Sunday morning, however, Ellen’s sad news was that another friend’s father, believed to be in perfect health, had died suddenly, apparently suffering a heart attack while snorkeling in Martinique.
I told Ellen about one of the cancer books I’m reading in which the author describes a workshop on dying she attended at a Buddhist retreat. The first exercise goes something like this: What is the best-case scenario for your death? (Ellen and I looked at each other over our Bloody Marys and mimosas. Our grieving friend couldn’t be ready to hear this, but passing in a blissful, underwater heaven in some idyllic tropical setting with your spouse at your side had to be the right answer.) What is the worst-case scenario? What do you have to do to make the best-case scenario happen?
Maybe the dying exercise is macabre. But the point, I think, is that in the end, the questions about how you die become a lesson in how to live which, barring suicide, is the only part we have any control over anyway.
Exactly one year ago, I was in Antigua, racing in a classic boat regatta with my friend, Captain Kid. He had been debating whether to keep sailing on toward the Pacific or do the practical thing and head home to Cape Cod, get a real job and sock away some money. At a rum party one night, he announced he had decided to sail the Pacific.
“If I only had a year to live, that’s what I would do,” I remember him telling me. “That seems like a good enough reason to do it now.”
Two days ago, he and his girlfriend took their 30-foot sailboat through the Panama Canal. Next stop: the Marquesas, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Not too long ago, I was on a plane with my St. John friend Fun Kim. We had just spent two weeks in Venice. Prior to that, I had made my first trans-Atlantic crossing, sailed around the Mediterranean with a crew from Malta and traveled solo through central Italy. Fun Kim had been sailing the Aegean and cavorting around Istanbul. Before all that, we were both living and working in the Virgin Islands. We were on our way to Palma de Mallorca to look for yachting jobs.
Security was especially tight as there had been another terrorist bombing scare in London the day before. We decided to fly anyway and, while sitting there waiting for take-off, agreed that if the plane went down, well, we couldn't complain too much about how things turned out. We had done more in the previous few years than many people do in a lifetime. And we had both called our mothers to tell them we loved them.
That doesn’t mean I want to die, and I know Fun Kim doesn’t want to either (even on the days when working full time and getting her masters back home in Oregon is so bo-ring). That plane conversation happened in 2006, a full year before the summer in Spain when we saw the running of the bulls in Pamplona, sailed to the America’s Cup, and discovered the vending machine on a dock in Valencia that dispenses that coldest Heinekens on the planet for only one euro. Clearly there is more life to be lived.
I do, however, like to think I contemplated What If? three years ago when I first quit my city job and moved to paradise in search of…more. There were many good reasons the timing was right to make the move--I was healthy, my parents were healthy, I had money in the bank and no major responsibilities--but the final motivator, the real kick in the ass was…What if? What if a year (or three) from now, something happens and I’m no longer in a position to do it?
I thank God every day I did not fail to seize the moment. Having that regret in this moment would truly be haunting.