by Julie Holabird
I had a lover during chemo. We began three days after my sudden, unexpected, triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis. We’d chatted before about our lives, divorces, and found we both had daughters: 8th grade, straight A, and determined. I’d always enjoyed him, so when faced with stinging bad news, after a lot of crying, after telling my girl and notifying family, I found myself writing a “not good news” note for friends, and included him in the address list.
Friday arrived after yet another sleepless night. I was trying to focus on finishing my work-week despite the internal chaos, but it was hot, hot in the way it rarely is in the Bay Area. The workday dragged, the sunshine outside beckoned, and as I slogged through my late afternoon weekly report, his email appeared, asking if I would go to the beach with him. It was the best offer I’d heard in three days, in what already felt like an eternity of cancer.
He appeared, it seemed, almost as soon as I’d typed the word “Yes,” and we picked up crackers and cheese, glasses and wine, arriving at Ocean Beach just as the families were packing out. I kicked off my shoes, shook out my waist-length auburn hair, and ran to the water’s churning edge, bracingly cold and frothy. I heard him behind me, steady foot falls nearing. My heart dancing, I found myself smiling, eager for something good, maybe just unbridled life. As he ran past me into the surf, he turned, broad shoulders, blond hair framed by the setting sun, reached into a wave and splashed me. We ran whooping and laughing, and soaking our work clothes as the sun dipped. Feeling the wind on my legs, holding out my clingy, dripping dress, I called, “I’m drenched!” I suddenly felt true cold, and he came close, looking concerned, lifted my face, gazed into my eyes, and kissed me.
His constant attention helped me survive most of my clinical trial, five chemo agents, multiple blood infections, surgeries, and then more infections. It was an arduous ordeal, but survive I did, though as the months wore on, as I was starting my radiation and further chemo, he left me. My sorrow felt like a rough stone, chafing me each time I came home from treatment to find my bed empty.
Then seventeen months of chemo/surgery/radiation and still more chemo induced irreversible chemical menopause. My doctor said I had less than 1% chance of getting my period back, and despite a secret wish, no chance for another child. As for restarting my love life, I’d heard older friends say that it was a relief to be post-menopausal, that they didn’t care so much about dating or men or sex anymore.
But none of that has been true for me.
During those most terrifying months of cancer treatment, during my deepest fears and searing pains, I had a man telling me I was still hot, still desirable, and my body responded. On days when I was barely able to walk half a block, he’d come to my bedside and we’d lock into a powerful embrace, and for a short while I’d forget my bald head and weak limbs, forget the pills and schedules on the bedside table, and lose myself, in him, in the moment, in me.
I found strength in touch, power when my body was greeted with fervor. Even when bald and donning a wig, my longing to dress up for parties, to flirt, and to love again strengthened and encouraged me in my recovery. And it still does, though I now present myself with new short, gray hair.
More than two years have slipped away since that day on the beach, both my treatment and my old lover have moved into my past, and I celebrated New Year’s Eve with a new man. New Year’s weekend I began to ache, and it wasn’t from champagne. I curled into bed, chilled, with my sweet boyfriend. Hoping the ibuprofen would bring quick relief, I fell into sleep, woke grateful to see the gray morning of a new year’s first Monday. And I was glad to be alive to catch the flu.
As the anniversary of my diagnosis again nears, I remember a conversation with my best friend, when I said, explaining my sudden lover, “If he stays with me through the rest of this chemo, I’ll be lucky. If he stays through the surgery, he’s a wonder. If he stays through radiation and the next rounds of chemo, he’s a saint.” And that’s how I learned he wasn’t a saint. Just a man who wandered into my life at a crisis moment, and gave me hope that I still had my life, my body, my world outside of cancer treatment.
Bio: Julie Holabird lives and works in the “East Bay,” near San Francisco. She has a wonderful 16 year old daughter, and is grateful for every single day, even the gray, foggy ones. Her portrait, above, was taken by her friend, Ruby Rieke.