We didn’t expect an answer to our questions from Duke on July 8, 2017. We’d been in the world of brain cancer long enough to know the pace of the weekends was different, simply slower. The cancer cells continued to divide as steadily as they had during business hours, but on Saturdays, doctors weren’t in their offices and they certainly weren’t responding to emails. The weekend was always a pause in our battle.
A year ago today, Matt bought a basketball hoop for G, something he’d been talking about with her for a while, and we braved traffic for a trip into the city to see a magician perform at The Nomad Hotel.
I don’t remember the drive into the city, whether the Lincoln Tunnel was backed up and Matt used his short cut through side streets, but I know where we parked, because in our shared photo album, I have half a dozen pictures of the cross street signs and the stores surrounding the parking lot. I remember walking through our old neighborhood and feeling sentimental, and then trying to recreate the feeling of being young and fun by taking the long elevator ride up to 230 Fifth, a bar perched on the rooftop of one of Fifth Avenue’s high-rises.
We sat at a table, surrounded by twenty-somethings with sugary drinks, and feeling kinda, sorta,—old. Neither of us wanted to day drink. Neither of us felt like sitting underneath the unforgiving sun on a loud crowded rooftop. And neither of us thought it was fun to push our way to the front of the bar for a drink. We left and rode the elevator down about ten minutes after we’d taken the ride up. We walked away from that trendy rooftop bar, laughing at how horrified the twenty-something versions of Matt and Elaine would be if they knew the curmudgeonly future awaiting them.
Until I started writing about this day, I’d forgotten that we went up to this rooftop bar and left not ten minutes later. But now I can’t stop remembering. Down on the sidewalk, there’d been a little breeze. But up there, among the clouds and the views of the New York City skyline, the air had been stagnant. Up there, among the young couples who did a double take at the scar stretched across Matt’s scalp, we tried to step into a life we’d already lost.
And though we walked out and managed to laugh at ourselves, blaming parenthood and suburban living, I can’t stop remembering now, how carefully I’d shoved aside that nostalgic ache. How I couldn’t help but think, if not for the cancer—that unexplainable, impossible, unthinkable third tumor—we would have sat underneath that hot, unforgiving sun and ordered a too sugary drink, and probably still laughed at how old we felt.
That night, we met Matt’s sister and brother-in-law for the magic show. Matt was called up on stage and I only have a vague memory of what he said. In my hazy memory of the night, I remember him trying to recreate a joke he’d made the last time he’d been called up on stage, ten or so years earlier, at a comedy show. The joke did not land as well as it had then. (My guess: most jokes don’t land well after a decade.)
The four of us went to dinner afterward. No hot sun, no too loud music, no vying for the bartender’s attention. I don’t remember much of this dinner. Matt’s sister reminded me that when the waiter came to take our drink order, Matt ordered something non-alcoholic and he didn’t find a way to crack a joke about cancer or a tumor. He said simply, he wasn’t drinking because he had cancer. I wonder now, a year later, whether his blunt statement had been the cancer already snatching away his humor or simply Matt, settling in to his circumstances. Either answer leaves me, again, trying to carefully shove aside that nostalgic ache for a person who was already slowly disappearing.
I’ve written before about the brutality of brain cancer, how devastating it is to miss a joke or a smile or sharp-witted remark that, in all honesty, may never have even existed. I’ve noted that the only way to describe the experience of watching a loved one disappear to brain cancer is to show each day, realize in hindsight what was missing. That’s a heartbreaking endeavor. So, where’s the hope, the light in the slow descent into the darker parts of the story?
I think the hope is there, hidden right within the words of the story, in the memories that stood out. The basketball hoop Matt bought, the ambitious ride two thirty-somethings with young kids took up to a trendy rooftop bar, the decision to step on stage in front of an audience of strangers. I think the hope and light are there, in the fact that the nostalgic ache is not the first thing I remember. In the fact that as the days begin to blur into the tapestry of memory, the echo of hope will always overpower the darker parts of the story.