On February 21, 2004, AJ and I walked into a podunk wedding chapel in St. Marys, Georgia, and made our vows. No matter whether the production is flamboyant or low-key, most of us go into the institution with the expectation that we will grow old together.
As we signed the marriage certificate, I had visions of future family celebrations, camping trips and waking up in 40 years to gaze beyond the wrinkled landscapes of each others’ faces and into cataract-clouded eyes.
As our 7th anniversary approached, all of those dreams seemed to be at risk of slipping away.
When we first met, I noticed an unusual mole on AJ’s back. I described it to him, and decided to keep an eye on it. Having recently experienced a minor basal cell carcinoma, I had a heightened awareness for all things that hinted of skin cancer; especially the dreaded, deadly Melanoma.
The years passed. We built a life together. The infatuation ripened into love and dedication to each other and our future. We got responsible and started getting medical checkups. When AJ got into the VA program, they completed an extensive physical. Although the funny mole had not changed, I asked him to have the doctor look at it. He forgot, but the doctor found it on his own. It was measured and put under observation.
Months later, AJ got around to a follow-up visit. He came back with the news that the mole had gotten bigger, and that there was another growth on his arm that concerned the doctor. A biopsy was scheduled. I had to work, so his mom, Karen, and her significant other, Mark, came for a visit and took him to his appointment. His mother was concerned, because she is a two-time cancer survivor, and the disease runs in the family. Perhaps it was denial, perhaps I had too many other things on my mind; for whatever reason, the thoughts of the biopsy were relegated to the back of my mind, and I continued on with the assumption that we would grow old together.
The days came and passed, with no word from the clinic. I had planned a trip to Jacksonville for my stepmother, Judith’s, birthday and to see my dear best friends and my darling goddaughter, Madeline.
As I was sitting on Judith’s couch, getting ready to take her to dinner, I got a call from AJ. The doctor had just called him. The story he got was that the spot on his back was melanoma and that the one on his arm was even worse. There was also something about his blood “not looking right”. So there I was, three hours away, getting ready to help celebrate a birthday and having to deal with news that the rest of my life was about to drastically change. I went numb (just like you always hear). The words were coming from my mouth, but it felt as though I was floating outside of myself, observing everything in slow motion. I tried to put on a happy face for the dear woman, who is still mourning the loss of her own life partner, my father.
Although I had only just gotten there, I felt compelled to get back into the truck and go straight home. AJ assured me that he was OK (which I later learned was not really true), and that I should stay. The rest of the trip was darkened with the black cloud of a future without my beloved.
When I got home, things were strange. AJ was subdued. His spirit was muffled. We went about our lives like robots programmed to audit bars and clean house and live a human life. I would have been a rusty robot, though; because I was on the brink of tears at all times. As soon as I found myself alone, my face was drenched. We acted like regular people (only nicer to each other than normal), but my eyes were puffy and red most of the time. I’m sure some customers suspected that I was dipping into illicit substances.
The doctor had called on a Thursday with the results. The appointment, to have his stitches removed, was on the following Monday afternoon. Every hour felt like a week. Somehow, we managed to get our work completed. I also managed to whip myself into a frenzy by scouring the internet for information about melanoma. My own skin cancer scare had disturbed me, but the thought of being left without my husband was worse than the thought of dying, myself.
The prognosis for metastasized melanoma is not good. Treatments are virtually ineffective, and the survival rate is six months to a year. Unless you are independently wealthy, the best hope is to get accepted into a study. I researched this, as well as natural cures. There is some good research indicating that chemotherapy with Dandelion root extract could be effective, and that even consuming the substance might help fight off cancer. I eyed my two Dandelion plants and wondered how many treatments I could squeeze from them.
I planned out how I would nurse him through his last days. I even fantasized about taking him out to our sandbar on the lagoon, when the end was near, and helping him float on to the next realm in the least painful way possible. I even considered taking that trip with him. Mostly, I just reeled at the thought of spending the rest of my life alone.
Who would I do everything with? How would I get my work done? Who would I go to when I was happy or angry or sad? How would I stay warm when winter cold crept into my bed? What would I do when things broke? I have always been grateful to be married to my best friend, but I never realized how hopeless and helpless I would feel without him.
I suddenly felt motivated to complete the most mundane and tedious tasks. Everything that I have been putting off became acutely important. I imagined that I would soon be in no state of mind to do anything, and that I should get busy while I still could. It was as though the timer on my life was about to run out, and I wasn’t ready.
We were noticeably more kind and loving towards each other during those days. It felt as though nothing external mattered any more, and that our parting memories should not be polluted with bickering or taking each other for granted.
We were angry with the doctor for phoning in such bad news and leaving a long weekend to dwell on it. I was angry with myself for not insisting that he have the mole looked at seven years ago. I was frustrated with him for not taking it more seriously.
On Monday afternoon, we found ourselves sitting in front of the nurse, who was expecting to remove the stitches from the biopsy. He chided us for having taken out the stitches and used the extra time to check the home blood pressure machine against the one in the clinic. We were agitated with having to wait for a consultation, and the fact that the nurse was more concerned with missing stitches than talking to us about how long AJ had to live. We explained the phone call from the doctor and how we were anxious to hear the official results. In my mind I was screaming “What is wrong with you? My husband has a death sentence. Who cares about stitches and blood pressure?!”
The nurse nonchalantly pulled up the records on the computer, and stated that it was melanoma in-situ (which I had already learned was the earliest and least dangerous stage). He continued to explain that the growth they had removed from AJ’s arm was completely benign.
We both let out a long breath, that we must have been holding for days, and barraged the nurse with questions about how the story from the doctor could have been so different from what he was telling us.
Relieved, and with a regained perspective, we left the VA clinic and stepped into the bright Florida sunshine. The black cloud was gone and we both shared an unspoken vow to be more thankful for what we have.
An excision was scheduled to make sure that they had gotten all of the cancer. The surgeon assured us that it was as close to harmless as melanoma can be, and that it is a type of slow growing melanoma that many people have for decades without incident.
He removed a chunk of AJ’s back that was the size of a human thumb. I think it would have been OK, had not the nurse shown it to him! It was a painful episode, and I let him milk it for every ounce of coddling.
The remaining scar is one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.
When we came home from the results of the biopsy, on what had become one of the happiest days of my life, AJ got drunk, played the stereo loud and ticked off the neighbors.
All is good though. AJ is alive, and so is our dream of being two old farts together!