“Don't make this any harder on me than it already is,” she said.
Harder on her? She was leaving. Almost four years together and 20 months into the marriage she was leaving. It sounds short, but our circumstances made the few years together seem like much longer.
We met at work. Fell in love. Moved in together. That was the first year. Year two we moved away from the pretty resort town we'd started in and back to Toronto when I got a better job. Three months in, at 30 years old, I got sick. Cancer, a type of soft-tissue sarcoma. Rare. No known cure. That was three years ago.
Eight months of chemotherapy followed. My parents bought her driving lessons so she could get her licence and they helped out with our rent so she could stay home and help care for me. After my surgery we moved in to my parents’ basement, the same bedroom I lived in as a teenager. The same house with the same parents at each other’s throats all the time. I was used to it, used to the fighting and the tension. She wasn't. It started to wear on her.
More chemotherapy. We got engaged. My parents paid off our car so we could live on my minimal earnings from part-time work. My doctor arranged for me to travel to a hospital in Texas to see a surgeon who put me under the knife for another 14 hours. A potential cure. We came back and moved into the basement again. I went back to work within weeks of surgery. We needed the money.
The surgery wasn’t a cure. More chemotherapy.
We got married in September, 2009, scheduled around my treatments. A beautiful wedding, under the stars. My parents paid for it all. Things were stable, but it scared me how hard it would be on her to watch me die. Turns out it was harder for her to watch me live.
I wasn't that good at living with cancer. Many people supposedly “live for the moment” or “just enjoy life.” I could enjoy my time with her, but nothing else provided me with any happiness. My favourite sports teams were awful, I had no long-term career prospects, and every six weeks a new scan told me whether the current round of debilitating drugs were having any effect.
Through all this I kept working because we needed the money. I wasn't living. I was existing, and dragging her with me. She was unhappy – who wouldn’t be at 26 living in your in-laws’ basement?
The next January, my company bought me out. Downsizing. She finally had to go to work. She got a job in her field and was great at it. I was so proud.
It was such a change from when we had first met. I had been a confident, successful, upwardly mobile manager. She hated herself. Thought of herself as a failure. I spent years convincing her she could do anything she wanted, dragging her up from the morass of sorrow she had been in. She deserved every bit of the effort. Happy, she was a sight to behold.
Soon she was a manager, a rising star in the company. She had new friends and was playing sports at a competitive level again. With money of her own and no bills other than my care, she started to resent me.
I was struggling. I tried to get a new job, but couldn't find anything. Every time I came close more treatments got in the way. I became depressed. I made attempts to start an independent business, but couldn't get past the idea and desire stage. My mind constantly warned me not to try, because how could anything go well after all this? The disease and living conditions kept beating me down. I fell deeper and deeper and withdrew emotionally from most things, including her.
I can't blame her. She couldn't pull me out. It wasn't in her nature. She would comfort me and hold me tight. She would get me food and drink when I was weak. But it was up to me to pull myself out. She couldn't grab me by my emotional lapels and drag me out the door to real life. She didn't have it in her. Most people don't. Eventually it became too much.
“I'm not happy, and I have to put myself first for once,” she told me. “I can't do it any more. I'm moving forward with life and you're just falling farther and farther behind.” I agreed, I thought, I'm a wreck. “You're not the same person as I married.” Nobody is, but she was doubly right with me.
When we met I knew my place, and it was at the head of the class. Business came naturally to me, as did most things. I did what I wanted and I was successful at it. When she needed somebody to lead I took on the role, no matter what; it was instinct.
She doesn’t require that of me any more. I thought it was something we could do for each other. She thought comfort and solace was her role. She expected us to share a life while I was still healthy, but instead she got an existence. Both of us stuck in neutral until I died and she had to start over. It's not enough for her. She deserves a life.
Maybe it will be a good thing. I'm faced with a choice. Exist as I have been, or try to live and be happy. Maybe it will fix things, maybe it won't. Either way I will be enjoying whatever time I have left, instead of just running out the clock. If that turns out to be her parting gift, it won't all be for naught.
I knew the disease would take my life. One day. I figured it would take my energy and drive – you just can't punish your body with drugs and surgery like I have and not come out affected. But I never thought it would take my marriage. It’s time to fight back.
David J. House lives in Mississauga.
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