School was officially out for the summer on June 20, 2017. I took G and H to the lake, which every year hosts a school’s over party for kids, and Matt went to work. In the late afternoon, I asked him to come meet me at the lake and he had a few legitimate reasons why he wouldn’t come: he was wearing work clothes, he hadn’t eaten dinner yet, he wanted to fit in an aerobic walk around the neighborhood.
I didn’t push him further, but I felt a familiar pinch of worry. Matt wasn’t mixing up words or struggling to read or forgetting how to use a spoon; I wasn’t worried that he was symptomatic. But more and more frequently, Matt preferred not to hang out in big groups. More often than not, he avoided the big social gatherings where he’d be surrounded by friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Which wasn’t a detail that I was panicking about, but I also wasn’t ignoring this behavior that was so unlike Matt. Pre-cancer Matt, anyway.
It never once occurred to me that a tumor might be growing (spoiler alert: it was) or the swelling might be returning (it wasn’t). My pinch of worry was grounded in something much more practical: the fear that, despite his confidence, despite his hope, the treatments and the setbacks and the statistics were dragging his spirits down. I was worried that he felt out of place because he couldn’t laugh and drink beer like the other guys, safe in the knowledge that chances were, his tomorrow wouldn’t be too different from his today.
My heart broke to think he might be feeling even a little discouraged, because the Matt I married was never discouraged. I felt helpless watching him pull away from the person he was, the guy who wanted to throw the huge party and rally his friends to go out at night and watch basketball. I wanted Matt to want to meet me at the lake, like he used to want to. I wanted him to want to grab a beer with the guys and joke and talk sports. I wanted all of that for him, but I also wanted it for me. Because I was already starting to miss the Matt I married.
And maybe that was too much to want. Neither of us could be the person we were before we heard the word Glioblastoma. I couldn’t go back to not overanalyzing his every decision and comparing him to some memory I had of the person he was. I couldn’t go back to not typing the words GBM and Polio into Google and hoping for a new article that might illuminate exactly what to expect next. We were both changed.
Because the real truth is, I was starting to miss Matt, but more than that, I was starting to miss us, the pre-cancer us, the one that would never return, even if Matt was cured. Not exactly, anyway.
A year removed, I still don’t know if Matt’s reluctance to attend big social gatherings was due to a tumor pushing on a particular spot in his brain, a treatment or surgical side effect, actual low spirits, or simply my own imagination reading too intensely into every decision Matt made. Maybe even if brain cancer never entered our lives, Matt wouldn’t have wanted to go to the lake.
Later in this story, when Matt’s personality unmistakably changes, it’s easier to blame brain cancer. But in these days, when the only symptoms were micro-personality shifts and the changes could just as easily be attributable to life and stress and growing older, there’s no way to know.
The cruelty of brain cancer is sometimes there, in the not knowing, in the wanting of the pre-GBM life that maybe would never have existed, anyway.