The Best/Worst Birthday…

coke-peanuts“Did you know there are 32 names for love in the Eskimo language? And we just have this one. We are so limited, you have to use the same word for loving Rosaleen as you do for loving Coke with peanuts. Isn’t that a shame we don’t have more ways to say it.”

I remember the moment I fell.

We were babysitting his 3-year-old niece, (let’s call her K) so his brother and sister-in-law could have a night out. I went into that evening thinking I would be the one playing with her while he watched basketball on tv. Boy was I wrong. It does something to you, to see a 6’2″ man laying on his stomach on the floor while a tiny blonde little girl takes his dollar to put in her grocery store cash register. He bought a can of beans, a plastic ear of corn and a baby doll…and my admiration. He barely glanced at the tv and instead, played hide and seek with the same enthusiasm and concentration given to it by the child that came up to his kneecaps. We hid, we colored, we made a bed of blankets on the floor, we watched Peppa Pig and snorted with laughter until our sides ached. He never tired. “One more time Uncle Josh,” K would shout, flinging herself onto him. He never said no.

When it was time for bed K cried. She wanted her Mommy and Daddy to be home. She wanted to sleep in their bed. “I’ll take her up.” I offered. I had been putting children to bed for two-thirds of my life and I knew what tears did to men. I was all set to go upstairs, when he stopped me. “I’ve got it.” He swooped her up into his arms. She looked so small there, resting against his chest, fat tears rolling down her cheeks. And up he went. I stood there for a second, surprised enough that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I could hear her, “Mommy Daddy Mommy Daddy,” she’d whimper over and over. And then the deeper sound that was Josh comforting her. I let ten minutes pass and then I went up, thinking to relieve him or help in some way. I stepped into the darkened room and when my eyes adjusted, I saw them. He was stretched out on the bed on his stomach and K was sprawled across his back. One of his arms reached behind him and cradled her against him. “Mommy Daddy Mommy Daddy,” she sniffled sadly. “Shhhhh, it’s ok…everything’s ok. I’m here sweet girl…Uncle Josh is here. Everything’s alright…I won’t ever leave you..shhh.”

For weeks I had been feeling my heart sliding towards him and that moment in the dark, watching Josh tell that little girl that everything was going to be ok..that he was there and always would be..I felt it tumble in my chest. I loved this man. I loved him for his steadiness, I loved him because when he gave his word..you knew he would keep it. I loved the way his laugh sounded, bursting out of him..deep and surprising. I loved the pride he took in everything he did, for the way he treated complete strangers, for the loyalty he gave his friends and for the easy confidence he carried. I loved the way he talked about his family and how much they meant to him. I loved his dimples and the way he rested his hands on me whenever I was close enough to touch. I loved his kindness and his sense of right and wrong. I loved that he was a horrible cook and yet still tried to make me dinner. I loved that he tried to make friends with every animal he saw, wild or tame. I loved that he could eat 6 grilled cheeses in one sitting and would give me the last bite of his ice cream cone. I loved him because he didn’t need anyone, but he wanted me. I held my love to me like a blanket and wrapped it around my shoulders. And that love…it glowed like the sun.

And still I didn’t say the words.

Tuesday June 3rd – 10:43 am

He had gone to the doctor’s a few weeks before to check out a strange patch of skin on his back. His mom and brother had bullied him into going as he never went to the doctor. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” he told me confidently. I agreed. He was a strong and healthy 35-year-old man. He felt invincible. Neither of us was ready for what came next.

The call came while I was in class. He never called me while I had kids and so I asked my co-teacher to take over so I could go outside and see what was going on.

I knew as soon as I heard his voice. He was in shock, brought to his knees by a piece of skin four inches wide and an ugly word that hid inside of it.

Cancer. He told me. Malignant Melanoma.

I sank to the floor. My legs had turned to water. “It’s going to be ok, everything’s going to be ok..you’re going to be ok.” My words turned into a plea and I could feel tears forming. I tried to hold myself together. I couldn’t fall apart on him. It was my turn to be steady and I wasn’t going to fail him. I let him go so he could call his mom and I sat there out in the sunshine staring at a darkened phone screen that was gathering salty tears that were anger and fear and heartache. Was this some cruel joke the universe was playing on me? Had I spent my whole life looking for him only to have him taken from me? No! I shouted inside my head. I couldn’t think like that. It was selfish and wouldn’t help anything. This wasn’t about me. It was about Josh. It was about figuring out how to beat this thing and standing next to him every single step of the way.

“It is the peculiar nature of the world to go on spinning no matter what sort of heartbreak is happening.”

Two days later I turned 29. I didn’t feel much like celebrating. It had been a long week of asking questions, setting up doctor’s appointments, scheduling surgery, asking more questions, praying to every God I knew and sending out my hope and love into the universe. Josh insisted we go out. He was feeling calmer now that there was a plan and refused to let me skip quietly past my birthday. He came to my house to pick me up for dinner and handed me a bag. We sat down on the couch and I opened the first present, wrapped simply in tissue paper. From its shape and size I could tell it was a book, and when I pulled back the paper I saw that it was a copy of “The Secret Life of Bees.” I had told him months ago that it was one of my favorites. What I didn’t tell him was that I was reading this book to my students at the time Jeff and I broke off the engagement. There are infinite places in that book that reached straight into my soul and spoke to the hurt that lived there. Those words brought healing and fresh pain and the understanding that someone I had never met knew the words in my heart and I was not alone.

“Knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now.”

When Jeff did what he did, I learned a truth about my life and about the person I thought had loved me. I had been carrying around my pack of lies for so many years, lies that he told me, lies I had told myself..I had forgotten how heavy they were, but once I had the truth, I couldn’t ever go back. I had traded one weight for another, but at least time would help me carry this truth until it no longer burdened me.

Sitting there on that couch with Josh beside me and that book in my hands, I felt the last bit of weight leave my shoulders. I had done it, and he had done it, and time had done it…the weight that was my Jeff heartache was finally gone. I took a deep breath..reveling in my lightness.

“Go on,” Josh urged, “open it!” I looked at him, a little confused, but did it anyway and there on the title page, was a signature written in bold black script. “Oh my gosh,” I whispered. He grinned. “OH MY GOSH!” I cried out, realizing fully what that writing was. “Holy shit! I mean, sorry, I’m just…oh my gosh. You got it signed?” At this point, I did what any girly book-lover would do when she gets a copy of her favorite book signed by the author…

I burst into tears.

Josh laughed at me and squeezed my leg, “Come on, you aren’t done yet!” I scrubbed my hands across my eyes and let out a watery laugh. “Sorry, gosh I’m such a weirdo..crying over a book.” I set it down next to me and pulled out the next present, also wrapped in tissue paper, also the size and shape of a book. “So, I’m not sure about this one, you really can’t use it, but I think you will like it.” Puzzled by his description I opened the paper to see a familiar cover, but with words written in a language I couldn’t read. The cover showed a girl swimming in a deep blue ocean with the wings of a giant manta ray stretched out beside her. My second favorite book is called “The Girl of the Sea of Cortez.” It was written by Peter Benchley (yes the same Peter Benchley who wrote Jaws) and he once told my dad that it was his favorite thing he ever wrote. They were working together on a documentary (my dad worked as a photographer and photo-engineer for National Geographic) and when my dad explained that it was my favorite book, Benchley got so excited he told my dad to bring it on their next trip so he could sign it for me. Unfortunately, in the chaos that is packing up all of the equipment and underwater gear he would need, my dad forgot the book at home. I was crushed and even more so when I learned of Benchley’s death in 2006. I told Justin this story once and showed him my worn copy that never got its signature. When I saw that cover underneath the tissue paper, I knew what he had done. This time he didn’t need to tell me to open the book. Gently, I turned the pages until I saw it. Josh started rambling nervously, “He didn’t sign very many of them and it took me forever to find. It’s written in Dutch, so you can’t read it, but I know you never got your signature and I thought maybe you would like this.” I grabbed his face and kissed him hard to stop him. “I love it.” I told him. “It’s perfect.”

“I didn’t know what to think, but what I felt was magnetic and so big it ached like the moon had entered my chest and filled it up. The only think I could compare it to was the feeling I got one time when I walked from the peach stand and saw the sun spreading across the late afternoon, setting the top of the orchard on fire while darkness collected underneath. Silence had hovered over my head, beauty multiplying in the air, the trees so transparent I felt like I could see through to something pure inside them. My chest ached then, too, this very same way.”

“Keep going.” Josh told me. I could tell he was enjoying this almost as much as I was. I reached into the bag and pulled out a box of Junior Mints and two scratch off lottery tickets. I laughed at the silliness of those and wrapped my arms around him in a hug. “Thank you thank you thank you.” I whispered in his ear. He gave me a squeeze and pulled back. “You missed something.” He told me and reached into the very bottom of the bag. Finding what he was looking for, he pulled his hand back out and there laying in his open palm was a key. My heart stopped for a moment and started again when he spoke, beating wildly at what he told me. “This is for you. It’s a key to my house.”

I stared at him a moment, speechless. And then he said it –

“I love you Julia. I love you so much.”

“He will use the word “love”, and the world will not stop spinning but go right on in its courses, like the river, like the bees, like everything.”

But in that moment, the world stopped spinning for me. It seemed to pause…hold its breath…and wait.

“I love you too.” I whispered. “I’ve wanted to tell you for so long.”
He smiled. “I know.”
I laughed at his answer and then at myself and the crazy mix of emotions that were swirling inside of me. “This is the best and worst birthday ever.”

On Friday June 13th, Josh had surgery to remove the Melanoma on his back. I know, it had to be Friday the 13th right? He had an incredible team of talented doctors, caring nurses and a hilarious anesthesiologist. They put him at ease, answered his questions, argued about rival sports teams, made him laugh and cut the Cancer out of him.

He has a wicked scar on his back left shoulder. He likes to tell people he got stabbed rescuing an old lady from being robbed. I kiss that scar every chance I get. I love that scar because it means I get to hear him tell me he loves me for as many days as we have left together.

“And when you get down to it, Lily, that is the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love but to persist in love.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

* Side note: Melanoma is the most dangerous and fatal of skin cancers. It causes almost 10,000 deaths every year. Educate yourself on what to look for, wear sunscreen and get checked regularly. Don’t put off going to the doctor if you feel like you have a spot that looks weird to you. Trust your gut. It could save your life. 🙂 For more information check out http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/melanoma

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