September 19, 2017 brought another morning with another terrible headache for Matt. Another morning during which the best thing I could offer Matt for the pain was an Extra Strength Tylenol.
Matt had a conference call scheduled at work. He’d been out of the office for more than a week (first Chicago, then the hospital stay) and out of the loop for at least the few days he’d been in the hospital, but he was determined to be on this conference call.
I remember watching Matt push himself up from the couch and dial in for the conference call. I remember him greeting the others on the call and placing the call on mute so he could listen. I remember the swell of pride and relief I felt as I left Matt to do what he did best—pace and strategize and steer a company into a new, exciting direction—while I snuck out to Bar Method.
In truth, I don’t know that he did more than listen in on the phone call. But to me, it didn’t matter. The fact that Matt tried, that he stood up from the couch despite the morning’s severe headache was a sign that he wanted to get better, that he was not emotionally surrendering to the cancer. That information was invaluable. I believed—and probably still do believe—that the battle against this aggressive tumor couldn’t be fought without heart and soul and willpower. And Matt’s unwavering belief in our happily ever after was contagious. Maybe that’s slightly different than hope, but it’s just as important a component in understanding how and why we did what we did.
After that swell of optimism, came the crash of reality. The trip we’d planned to Napa was only weeks away and the deadline for a refund was approaching. Matt and I were forced to admit to ourselves—and our friends—that he was not going to be well enough to go on the October trip to Napa that we’d planned for his fortieth birthday. This birthday had already transformed to accommodate Matt’s health—his big party shifted to a small party which shifted into no party and a trip. Now, we had to postpone the celebration altogether. I remember sitting on the deck, the sunshine on our faces, and agreeing we’d go once he was better, once he could spend days walking between wineries and eating and drinking and being himself. We had a new plan, again.
From high to low, and now to the in between. Matt had decided that his back and neck pain must be the result of our old mattress. No doctor had provided us with any other explanation for the severity of the pain. After we called our friend to cancel the trip, Matt decided we should go to a mattress store. I texted a friend afterward and told her that the salesman was definitely—without a doubt—going home to his wife at the end of the day and complaining about the weird couple that took up nearly an hour of his time with nonsense. I remember Matt’s questions failing to make sense, how he repeated the same question with different words though he’d just gotten the answer, how neither the salesman nor I could quite follow some of his questions. I remember also how I didn’t intervene because too often Matt and I found ourselves renegotiating our relationship—changing the control dynamics and growing frustrated with each other as we stepped into roles we didn’t want—and this seemed like a situation in which Matt could play the part he’d always played in our relationship. I sat on a showroom mattress checking literary agents’ Twitter feeds while Matt talked himself and the salesman in circles. Maybe that wasn’t fair to the salesman, but it was important to Matt’s confidence level, to prevent that emotional surrender.
I spent the late afternoon with the kids while Matt rested. G had tennis and then cheerleading practice and pictures. H had a playdate and soccer practice. The long rest while we’d been out of the house rejuvenated Matt. His headache decreased and that night, he read G and H a story before bed.
I remember going to bed (AKA, falling asleep exhausted on the couch) thinking we’d found a new rhythm. Not an enviable rhythm. Not even an easy rhythm, but a rhythm we could manage. I remember thinking we could do this while we waited for things to get better. We were doing this. Two tumors had disappeared, the poliovirus was working its magic on the third, and we were finding a new normal.