We are familiar with it by now, on a first name basis, in fact: “The cancer” “Cam has cancer” “the cancer thing.” Cam texts me after an appointment and refers to “my cancer”, like it was some sort of pet. A black slimy pet with too many fingers, that doesn’t do anything but sit in the corner and watch us while we eat and sleep. If we’re going to talk about names this is probably the first thing you should know.
Back when the cancer was just a shadow, an irregular mass on a blurry radiology picture, we met with Sarah, the priest who married us this summer. We talked around money, wills, living situations, kids, whether or not we’d take our family to church. We didn’t tell her about the–well, the not-cancer, the lesion, whatever it is. Why worry people, we kept saying to each other, if it’s going to turn out to be nothing anyway?
It was still Not-Cancer, at least to us. In the span of a month it would go from being called a polyp, which sounds almost friendly, some harmless invertebrate sea creature, to a lesion–more sinister, perhaps, but with an overtone of superficiality–to a tumor. A tumor is not fucking around.
Sarah also asked me if I plan on changing my name when Cam and I get married, and I said truthfully that I don’t know. It had never been something I thought about before the question arose in earnest, suddenly many friends and relatives asking me about it as casually as they did about floral arrangements and bridesmaids dresses. I start to dread it, because I simply didn’t know the answer.
My hang-up was not about women’s empowerment—my name is my dad’s name, so not much patriarchy-smashing to be had there, if you ask me—nor about Cam’s last name, which I like. But my name is mine. I’ve been proud of it, seeing it appear in newsprint the first time (and even the hundredth time), on Dean’s Lists, on awards, on offer letters. My hesitation was actually entirely uncomplicated, even though it sounds dumb to me each time I say it aloud to an aunt or a coworker: That’s me.
Cam had his first surgery on Halloween. It was also the week that the Red Sox won the World Series. Sitting alone in the waiting room I wrote: everyone in this city is partying except us. Everyone, that is, except the other poor fucks in the waiting room with us. Everyone here is old and sick; I wrote. Old, sick people, sitting across from us with their slightly less old, slightly less sick family members. There is a guy sitting across from us who looks like his whole face was burned off, looking like a monster out of Pan’s Labyrinth. Worst of all he looked finished, his skin smooth and restored, all the same color, but all the softness in his face melted away, his eyebrows and eyelashes vaporized. This is the best work that the best doctors at the best hospital in the world can do. I wrote all of this down in a notebook that I bought in the Mass General gift shop because I hadn’t brought anything from home. I thought writing would be the last thing I wanted to do in those waiting rooms but it was the only thing I wanted to do.
It took eight days to get the biopsy results back. For the first few days I was privately sure it wasn’t going to be…that. We tacitly agreed that we would not say that word aloud until it’s a sure thing. His urinalysis did not show even a trace of cancer cells, a fact we both clung to. But it took a long time, longer than they said it would. If it was nothing they would have told him by now, I thought—again, silently. This did not prepare me for when Cam comes home with a firm yes: Cancer, n.; see also: serious as.
Cam and I might have been accused of playing house, once. We moved in together as soon as my college lease was up, and we got engaged the following fall. We live in the Northeast, among people who carefully and chronologically tick off “college, travel, internship, career, graduate school, condo, relationship, dog” before they think about anything so serious as marriage. He is two years older than me; making us 22 and 24, respectively, when we got engaged. That feels like an awful long time ago.
My favorite kinds of books as a kid were ones where kids were in a situation where they had to be–or chose to be—anachronistically grown-up. The Boxcar Children. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Especially a series of books called Gone Away Lake, in which a sister and brother discover a whole abandoned neighborhood, filled with falling-in Victorian lake houses that they fix up. I also have an undying love for “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead”, in which teenage Christina Applegate has to lie her way into a job as a personal assistant so she can take care of her siblings while their mother is spending the summer wherever parents go in this kind of story. I’ve wanted to be older than I was for as long as I can remember.
When the cancer first came onto our radar, it felt like we were in a nightmare version of one of these “playing house” stories, except instead of just grownups we are suddenly old. We were two healthy young people in their mid twenties who suddenly have earnest discussions about where in the bedroom we could best hook the catheter bag. We discussed the concentration of blood in Cam’s urine with care and solemnity, questioning whether it was edging from a healthy “peach” into the territory of too much blood, a sign that the site where the tumor was removed is bleeding more than normal.
We’ve been together for five years. We have a stupid joke between us, that whenever one of us says or does something gross, we look at each other and say, with forced merriment, “year five!” Somehow, though, we found ourselves fast-forwarded to year forty-five
When we were in the thick of the uncertainty, all I could think about was babies. I would find myself sitting on the T zoning out and looking like a creep or a child-snatcher, looking at their expressions and gestures and eyes, the way they kick and flail or sometimes just sit still, quiet in their strollers on the crowded train, looking at people’s faces. I say all the time to our moms and aunts that we are in no hurry whatsoever to have kids–but when we were most adrift all I could think about was making a kid with Cam, having a family together. This is partially because the female body is a freakish hormonal death trap that is telling you to get pregnant all the goddamn time, and especially when you’re an emotional wreck. But I know now that it’s also the same impulse that makes me sleep tucked closer to him now, makes us stick closer together physically in almost any context, the one that made me finally make a decision about changing my name. I can’t possibly hold him close enough.
It took me a long time to tell anyone that I have made up my mind about changing my name, because I knew I was not to be trusted. On a daily basis I was seized with these thoughts — babies, for instance, or a brief conviction that we should go to city hall and get married immediately, family and deposits and dresses be damned. The name thing stuck.
My answer came falling out when Cam’s mother asks me about it in the waiting room after Cam is taken into surgery. We were trying to talk about something—anything—else. Yes, I said, without even thinking about it. I wasn’t sure before, but now, yes. Yes.
Three surgeries later, Cam is healthy. Bladder cancer is an old person’s disease, more so even than cancer in general. It’s rare for it to show up in someone younger than 50, the odds shrinking still further for someone under 30. Caught early, it is one of the more treatable cancers. The primary risk factors are smoking and exposure to certain industrial chemicals. Cam is a graduate student; and one of the few people I know who has never so much as touched a cigarette, never even shared one outside a bar. “Exceedingly rare,” were the words of the urologist at Mass General who treated Cam, who shook our hands and told us not to worry, back in the world of friendly polyps.
So this is how things are now: Normal most of the time, with interruptions for appointments and nervous days afterward. I can very effectively whip myself into hysteria this way–thinking about scenarios, all the things we have coming, all the times and places cancer could intrude on our lives again and throw everything out of orbit. But now we live with it.
I know many people my age who shed or amend their last names–if not officially, at least on Facebook–in sync with whichever estranged parent they are speaking to, which parent committed infidelity or an equally painful crime. Some pick up the names of step parents who have become parents in everything but biology; others take their husband’s name without any audible murmur of uncertainty. My name has never felt like something I can shed easily, putting on a new one; not like going off to college and deciding to tell all your new friends your name is Liz rather than Beth. Were it not for this cosmic wallop to the head, I would still be on the fence. I do know now that for me it’s the right thing; for Cam and I to share the same name.
We have astonishing, exceptional family and friends who were with us through every step of Cam’s illness—but an experience like the one we have just come through makes it clearer than ever: being the husband or the wife means that you’re the one who is left when everyone goes home; the one who falls asleep and wakes up beside this sick person who suddenly needs you in the simplest, human-est way. Not, ‘I need to talk to you,’ or ‘I need you to come pick me up from the mechanic’ but ‘I need you to help me fit this bag of bloody urine through my pant leg’.
And I need him in a way that knocks the breath out of me–when he gets up early and dresses in the dark, rousing me from sleep for just a minute to kiss me goodbye, when he puts his arms around me from behind when I’m sitting at the breakfast table or working in the kitchen. Cam feels to me as though he has been made only stronger and wiser from the whole experience and I feel guilty because I feel only more anxious, more brittle. We’re gentler with each other for having been through this, and I try to think that’s enough.
I can’t get a deep breath in my lungs without thinking about it, I wrote in my hospital notebook soon after Cam received the all clear. I was constantly doing the stretches that yoga teachers call heart openers — moves that push your shoulders back and lift the crown of the head, stretching, lengthening the muscles across the breastbone and neck and shoulders. It helped, for a minute. Mostly, I felt out of breath, until one day I realized I just wasn’t anymore. Now we live with it.
Tonight Cam crawled into bed beside me, settling himself against me but not looking at my computer screen because he knows that I hate that.
“What are you writing about?”
“You,” I said. “You and me. Cancer.”
“You could write a book about it.”
“A short book, I hope.”
Cam’s eyes were closed.
“Or a very short chapter in a long book,” he said, already drifting away to sleep.
(photos by the terrific Pizzuti Photography.)