Sunday, August 27, 2017 marked our first full day at the beach. The timestamp on the picture of Matt smiling at his niece reveals that we were all up before 8 a.m. (What’s a vacation with kids?) The text messages reveal that Matt wasn’t himself—his humor and ability to engage had vanished, maybe not completely, but enough to be noticeable—, and that more and more often—too often—I spotted Matt sitting with his left eye closed.
The text messages also remind me that H asked Matt why he was closing his eye. Matt explained to H that he was having trouble seeing, but that we were going to his doctors in a few days and maybe they could help.
I’d told G and H that Matt and I would have to leave the beach early to go to Matt’s doctors. I’d explained that they’d stay with their grandparents, aunts, uncle, and cousins. I’d explained, but apparently not well. G and H hadn’t realized that we would be gone for longer than an overnight. They were upset when they understood that they’d be finishing the annual family trip to the shore without us.
G and H recovered quickly when reminded of all the fun they’d have, even without us. But it broke my heart for those few moments to see how brain cancer—a term they still didn’t know—had impacted them. We (Matt and I) wanted nothing more than to protect them from heartache, from a truth that was growing too impossible to hide.
We didn’t realize it then, but we were fighting two battles simultaneously…maybe, losing two battles simultaneously. The battle against an aggressive tumor. And the battle for G’s and H’s untarnished childhood.
At about 7:52 p.m. I texted a friend and wrote: Somewhat tough days here for Matt. It’s very obvious how out of it he is though. Super sad.
And yet, the photo I took at 7:48 a.m., of Matt and his niece, tells a completely different story. In that photo, Matt looks happy and present and wholly himself in a way that doesn’t harmonize with the text message I sent just twelve hours later. My mind instantly jumps to a few possible explanations. Maybe I was overreacting—always a very real possibility. Maybe Matt’s mornings were easier than his evenings—this was true and a fact Matt was aware of. But maybe, no explanation is needed. Maybe Matt was himself in one moment and not himself in another. Maybe the space and time between that photo and my text message is Matt fighting the disease, doing his best to be himself when the tumor kept trying to take him.
One year ago today, I couldn’t tell whether Matt’s quiet, almost withdrawn, state was due to sadness about his health, anxiety about the upcoming treatment, my overactive imagination, or whether he was disappearing to the tumor. Whenever I asked him, he confirmed that he wasn’t sad. Upset about leaving the kids, annoyed that he needed more treatments and the poliovirus wasn’t the easy cure we’d hoped it would be, but too positive to be depressed. Always positive. Always confident he would get better.
And because of the foundation of that dynamic that existed between us—the one where I trusted Matt more than I trusted myself—if Matt was confident he’d get better, I was, too. We just had to make it through this rough patch. And we could do that. We were doing it, one moment, one breath, one early morning smile at a time.