A year ago today, I was getting my nails done in what was perhaps the worst fake-nail-manicure ever. A year ago today, it didn’t matter that my nails looked ridiculous because all of my friends and family were stringing papel picado and tying sheets in octagonal formations to drape over sun umbrellas and arranging benches borrowed from a nearby church in rows under the trees. A year ago today, I knew only one person who had had breast cancer. A year ago today, I was more concerned about the cleavage in my wedding dress than the scars snaking across my chest. A year ago today, Mexico’s shot at the World Cup hadn’t been stolen yet, and I was balancing cucumbers on my eyes under the strict instruction of the girl about to do my make-up. A year ago today was before cancer, it was just another day, it was our wedding day.
The person who stood with me under a make-shift altar in El Vado, a year ago today, is the best person I could ever ask to spend my life with. He’s kind and musical and passionate and even. A few months ago, we settled into the chemo room and he complained that I got us both salads from Whole Foods for lunch and he hates salads– he certainly didn’t let the cancer phase his disdain for fresh greens, and he kept things normal by making his disgust known. During those sick times, he bought me bunches of organic grapes- one of the only foods I could actually stomach- and didn’t even roll his eyes at the double-digit price for organic grapes in February. When the going gets rough, he gathers me in his arms and snuggles up close, enveloping me in the safest of all spaces.
“In sickness and in health.” It just means something different now, something we never could have expected or imagined. Certainly, the cancer was rapidly dividing as we danced that evening, but we were utterly, entirely clueless. And because we were so clueless, there was a kind of bliss, a sheer energy that seemed like it could never be penetrated, a wildly certain hopefulness that included a life full of wonder. It’s not that we specifically wished to not have cancer, it’s that we didn’t even know to wish we didn’t have cancer. That was not even on the radar a little bit. Why should it have been? There was no reason.
Or maybe there was. Two years ago, I finished defending my comprehensive exams and was preparing to go to Nicaragua to galavant with my friend K and set up the AMIGOS Boaco project. I thought I’d been bitten by a spider, and there was a giant and swollen bite on (I think) my left breast. I flew to Managua the next morning, and the swollen bite proceeded to worsen, turning colors and filling with puss. After a youth encuentro, I took myself to the Doctor I always used for volunteers in Teustepe, and she lanced the swollen red bite, and flooding out came gross, warm, yellow-ish puss. She thought perhaps it was a bit, but she said it looked more like a very infected in-grown hair. She prescribed antibiotics, and told me to come back for more puss-squeezing the next day. You don’t want to hear these details, but I’m sharing them anyway. Before the wound healed and the infection cleared up, we took to calling this giant boob-owie my “triple nipple.” “How’s the triple nipple,” K would ask when we woke up under our mosquito nets and as we rode in the back of the truck to visit communities. Soon enough, though, it healed. It became something we laughed about- “Oh, remember that time you had a triple nipple and…”and the triple nipple story was woven into our Nica narrative. It fit right in next to scorpion bites and youth encuentros and how tired we were of eating at the only restaurant in Teustepe. But now I wonder. In retrospect, I wonder if this was connected. Was my body trying to tell me something, two years ago? Certainly I already had the cancer. Was it exploding through my skin, begging for attention? Should I have seen another doctor? Should I have thought twice about the proposition of an ingrown hair on my generally hairless breasts? I’m certainly thinking about it now, even though my oncologist has assured me “we will never know.” As if that’s a good enough answer.
So when we wed, and when we promised to love each other “in sickness and in health,” we had no idea what was to come. But in retrospect, maybe there was an inkling. So often, the pieces don’t fall together until after the fact. So often when we make life-long promises like “in sickness and in health” we have no real way to understand what we are promising. And should we? We march blindly forward together, blithely unaware of what we are promising, hopelessly uninformed about how our lives will develop. So what if we had known? Would we still have promised? If we had known, would we have been able to do anything with this information, would we have even been able to understand this information? Like whether the triple nipple incident was related to the cancer lump, we will never know.
We cannot know backwards, knowing what we know now. What we can do is know solidly, that in our decisions and commitments and promises there is always an unknown hovering, a precariousness about even that which we believe in so solidly, about even that which we take for granted, about even that for which we can conceptualize an other. The world is full of unknowing. Some things can only be known after the fact, when the moments that feel disparate can be seen from a distance. There is a trajectory, a linking, a way of knowing that we can only see from where we stand. And of course, when we make promises like “in sickness and in health” there’s no way of knowing how “in sickness and in health” feels, unless and until, we find ourselves swimming through those words. We are swimming through them, finding a new normal, caring for each other from a perspective we never knew was possible. In sickness and in health. So did we know? No. Could we have known? We’ll never know. We cannot know, if we could have known.
And so instead, we cuddle and celebrate. A year ago today, we stayed up all night swimming and drinking margaritas that were mostly tequila with only a droplet of lemon juice. A year ago today, he promised to each artichokes with me and I promised to pat out roundish tortillas for him. A year ago today, we got to do something so fun, so meaningful, so awesome that it still feels exciting and hopeful and incredible when I think about it. A year ago today, we got to have a giant party with all the people we love.
And what a year its been.