Matt finished day three of Gamma Knife radiation on September 1, 2017. We were done by noon and ready to fly back home. The radiation oncologist who performed the Gamma Knife allowed Matt to travel home, telling us only to be in touch regarding any side effects and to schedule a MRI in a month.
We didn’t expect any side effects—Matt was feeling great, as himself as he’d been the night before. We (or I) let ourselves believe the Gamma Knife had already started helping Matt’s symptoms. I could feel our upswing just on the horizon.
We raced to the airport as our phones buzzed with severe weather alerts and tornado warnings. We arrived at the airport and learned that our flight had been delayed by hours, but the 2:45 p.m. flight was scheduled to take off on time. Matt and I put ourselves on a standby list, behind half a dozen other people also hoping to get out of North Carolina.
We slumped into plastic chairs, settling in for what we imagined would be a long night.
Name after name was called. Slowly, our names creeped to the top of the standby list until finally our names were first and second. Matt and I sat up in our chairs and paid attention.
Then Matt’s name was called. We cheered until we reached the counter and learned there was only a single seat available—there would be no more.
Matt and the woman who worked at the check-in desk encouraged me to take the seat. They rationalized that Matt had priority status, if another seat opened, his name would be first on the standby list for this flight or any subsequent flights. I did not have priority status, and I would not get onto a flight easily. I argued that maybe we should both just wait for our original flight. Matt and the check-in line woman shot down the idea—that flight had been pushed back to nearly midnight. She guaranteed she’d get Matt on an earlier flight, if I went on this flight.
My eyes filled with tears and I didn’t glance at Matt as I explained to the woman what Matt had been through. I explained how deeply terrified I was at leaving him alone. Matt told her I was overdramatic, but that he loved me for worrying.
I boarded the flight and called my mom, my voice thick with fear and stress and uncertainty. I told her I couldn’t stay on this flight. I couldn’t leave Matt. We’d wait out the delays together and hopefully manage to get home in time for G and H. I stood up to reach for my bag—
And Matt walked onto the plane, grinning. I think I’ll remember that victorious, “I told you so” grin forever. When I asked how—the check-in lady had been adamant that only one seat was available—he just shrugged and said he had his ways. I’ve said before, one of my favorite things about Matt was his ability to talk us into the front of every line, especially at the airport. I sat back down, an entirely new set of happy tears in my eyes, and he took the seat beside me. (Yes, somehow the mystery available seat was next to mine.)
In the midst of our airport drama, Matt and I received an email from the substitute nurse at Duke. He wrote to inform us that the doctor had reviewed Matt’s spinal MRI and found no signs of tumor. We were nothing but relieved. And at least for the day, happy to stop worrying, happy to believe the Gamma Knife was working, and happy to believe we were out of the woods.
There’s another September 1st story to share, though the text messages from this day are lost and the photos exist in an album somewhere. Only my imperfect memory remains to share this particular story. Eleven years ago today, Matt proposed. We had brunch reservations for his thirtieth birthday. On the way to the restaurant, he was so nervous he couldn’t speak. And I knew—though I never told him—that he was probably going to propose. (Or come down with a stomach flu. Either was equally likely given how pale he was.) After I accepted, because of course, we celebrated Matt’s thirtieth birthday and our engagement on a friend’s roof deck, overlooking all of lower Manhattan.
The brightest memory I have of that day (which is full of bright memories) is standing with Matt, watching the sky turn from blue to orange to black as the sun set, and thinking I’d never been so happy and so sure I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
September 1st marks the beginning of what Matt and I called “present season,” the period of time between September 1st—the anniversary of the day we got engaged—to March 5th—G’s birthday. In Post Hope, the next few months will be nothing but firsts without Matt—his birthday, our anniversary, H’s birthday, all the holidays, New Years, my birthday—until we reach February 3rd, when all the seconds without Matt will begin.
Present season in Post Hope will be relentless. But I hope not bleak. How could it be truly bleak when every heartbreaking Post Hope first is intimately connected with a day full of the brightest memories?
Our origin story—like so many other origin stories—is filled with light and love and memories capable of dulling even the sharpest edges. To survive Post Hope, and to fulfill my promise of softening the sharpest edges of this story, I have to remember that our story is more than a year, more than a tragic brain cancer tale, and more than a Post Hope ending. There’s so much more to our story worth sharing.
I suspect in every tragic brain cancer story there’s so much more than sharp edges to share.