December 16, 2017: To Come Up For Air

One year ago today, Matt and I declined an invitation to go out with friends. We’d received the invitation—to celebrate birthdays and holidays and the end of another year—earlier in the week, but I’d avoided giving a firm answer, thanks to a hefty dose of denial and a fair amount of wishful thinking. I had told the friend that I wouldn’t be able to commit until the last minute; it would depend on Matt. She’d been understanding.

She was understanding on Saturday, December 16, 2017, when I texted her to say that we (Matt and I) weren’t going to be able to make it.

I had hoped to go—even securing my mom as a babysitter for the night. I had wanted to go with an almost adolescent desperation. For so many weeks and months, we’d been submerged in the world of cancer. I had hoped to come up for air, for just a few hours. I had hoped Matt would be feeling enough like himself that we could stop by and just be Matt and Elaine—or, at least, something approaching Matt and Elaine. I had wanted to feel normal—like another suburban couple out on a Saturday night.

As the day marched on, I accepted a truth I’d known all along. Normal was too far out of reach. We couldn’t go for a couple of reasons. For one, Matt simply wasn’t Matt. He’d be disoriented in a large, loud group. He’d feel out of place in a conversation that he couldn’t quite follow. He’d struggle too much. And that protectiveness. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want to expose Matt to a situation in which he might be frustrated.

And two—and this reason is harder to verbalize and largely irrational—we were trying to protect the majority of our friends from our truth. In a way, we were trying to protect ourselves from it, too. The (irrational) logic goes like this: if the majority of our friends didn’t know the extent of Matt’s struggles, then once he got better, we could pretend he’d never struggled at all. That was how Matt and I had dealt with every down cycle. During the upswing, we never discussed the depths to which we sank. We never acknowledged the darkness through which we’d walked. In the upswing, we’d just pick up where we left off from the previous upswing. In a way, we pretended the down cycles never existed. And it was easier to pretend if our friends didn’t know.

That belief. The belief that this struggle was temporary, that this down cycle would end and we’d be able to blot it out of our memory to pick up where we left off, was how hope manifested on December 16, 2017.

That night, because we had a sitter, because my mom encouraged us to go out, we (Matt and I) went out. We went for dinner—and I wish I could say it was easy and fun. It wasn’t. Conversation was strained. Matt’s warped reality combined with my disappointment was an explosive combination. Afterward, we went to see the new Star Wars movie. We’d gotten to the theater late and had no choice but to sit in the very first row.

I don’t really remember why we didn’t leave—return the tickets for a refund and go home. I vaguely remember Matt wanting to stay. We watched the entire movie. Two plus hours craning our necks up to an impossible angle.

I remember almost nothing of the movie, except this: Matt had loved it. That close, he’d been able to see the screen and all the details that mattered in the movie. For weeks prior, he’d been unable to watch TV at home. He’d all but given up watching football and basketball. But finally, he’d been able to watch a movie. He’d gotten a few hours of normal.

Without realizing it, we’d gotten my wish. The chance to come up for air.

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