On the morning marking your 19th year of marriage, you wake to the sound of your neighbor’s leaf blower. Your bones push into each socket with an estrogen-less ache you’re both familiar with and surprised by in a body that, nearly six months after finishing chemo, does not feel like yours. Your husband rouses your 9-year-old as you plod up the stairs. In the kitchen, you mix rice and lamb for your not-yet-dying old dog (the one you got when the teenager was three). As you drive your youngest to camp you make sure he covers his freckled cheeks and nose—features you share—with sunscreen. He does this while showing you the braided friendship bracelet he made the day before with Riptide, his favorite camp counselor. After you park, he squirms while you brush his hair in the street and tell him the story of cutting yours short (that time by choice) when you weren’t much older than him because you, too, had no patience for tangles.
When you get home, you fill the washing machine with wet towels used by your husband to wash all three of your rescue terriers—a gift that confirms, while he does not understand your need for myriad throw pillows, he gets you. You refold the blanket on the windowsill for the cat and wonder how it is you came to believe that every problem, every need, every empty longing in a heart can be quelled with a pet. You promise yourself that, after the old one goes, you will take a break (you need a break) and refrain from adding any more four-legged members to your family. But even as you think it, you know you are lying.
The night before, on a walk with your husband and your two not-yet-close-to-dying dogs, your teenager, earbuds affixed, passed on his bike and grunted in your general direction, but neither you nor your husband were sure it qualified as a greeting. Down the road, your dogs exploded on their leashes as another couple passed with a well-behaved yellow Labrador retriever. You joked with your husband about an alternate reality where you are the couple with the obedient purebred and a teenager who says, “Hello” as you pass on the street. Your husband not-so-jokingly asked, “Where is this alternate life?”
At lunchtime, your husband picks up sandwiches from the Italian deli, and you pack your car with the teenager, a picnic blanket, and the “puppy” (who is nearly two but remains puppy-like since, a year into the pandemic, you adopted her when she was a four-pound ball of fur and because your family was unraveling thread by isolated thread—and you needed it so much—you named her Hope). You take Hope with you to the park, thinking maybe she’ll help break the tension, broker the distance, that has grown between you and your firstborn.
But the teenager doesn’t engage with her because later, he is going to the mall with friends and does not wish to be covered in fur. And for the same reason, instead of grass, you sit at a picnic table, where you place the still-folded festive blanket on the bench beside the teenager’s hunched body. You think it, his posture, is visual evidence of his disdain for you, for this forced family outing—which he has offered in exchange for never suggesting family therapy again. His body language and averted eyes seem like a special armor he wears only for you, but your husband says, “No,” he sees it too. What matters to you most is that you don’t know him, and what a strange thing not to know a person you made, who not so long ago leaned his head into your shoulder and said, “Good Mom,” and told you he loved you. You know you didn’t imagine it because he said it every time you kissed him goodnight. For 4745 nights, until he didn’t. Until you didn’t.
On the anniversary of the one you promised “in sickness and health,” this is the first of only three occasions you allow yourself to imagine a future where you are no longer here—your family in the world without you. Intrusive thoughts of dying that have become commonplace since your diagnosis last fall.
In the park the teenager allows a hint of a smile to meet his lips while you ask about his upcoming sophomore year: his classes, baseball tryouts, driver’s ed., his future. You do not have enough knowledge of who he is at this moment in time to imagine who he’ll become, so to you, his future self feels amorphous. When you look at him, you wonder what the oldest version of you will be to sit across from each other like this. The ache feels like someone has torn out pages of your favorite book, and you’ll spend the rest of your life searching for them.
After the park, your husband drives your teenager to the mall, and you respond to a transphobic tweet from Steven Crowder. You reply because you think he, and others of his ilk, have hijacked your son’s brain, and though you know it does nothing to move the needle, you are angry about YouTube, and algorithms, and the alt-right’s need for malleable teenage boys. You need a void to scream into.
You receive a phone call from the vet, and she tells you your old dog’s liver values are only slightly elevated. That the prescription she gave you should temper what ails him, for now. There is hope for more time.
Your husband walks into the kitchen carrying a handful of circus roses (your favorite) just as the groceries you ordered arrive at the front door. You exchange a quick kiss and say, “Happy verse,” as he puts away milk and eggs while you arrange stems into a birch bark vase you bought at a garage sale across the street from your second favorite home together—with the Peruvian lilies and the play structure in the backyard where your boys swung like monkeys and served you plates of bark and dandelions when you ordered pancakes at their diner. You bought the vase nearly a decade earlier, but you love it just as much as you did then. Maybe more.
In the car, after you pick up your youngest from a camp he loves so much it’s his sixth summer in attendance, he says, “One day I’ll be a counselor there,” as though it is prophecy.
In the rearview through the summer sun, he glows. You piece him together in your mind: a fully formed teenager with golden skin, wild and unbrushed-in-the-cool-way hair, and a gentle affinity for others threaded through him so centrally, you refuse to consider it will loosen and fray over time. I can let go, you think, he’s ok.
On the evening of your 19th anniversary, as you did so many years ago on the top of a mountain in Santa Cruz, you wear a dress. It is not so different from your wedding dress in shape and form—spaghetti strapped and simple. But it lacks the bodice embroidery and trail of silk buttons down the back. Your form and shape is not so different at first glance, but time has left constellations of moles and freckles on your stomach, chest, and breasts—which you no longer feel because of the plastic inside you and the severed nerve-endings. On your upper arms and thighs, your skin has begun to crepe and dimple, and there are deep grooves on your forehead and mouth, which you hope formed more from laughter than worry. But you understand enough about memory to know you’ll never be sure.
You apply make-up (even mascara) and curl and twist what has grown of your hair into barrettes reminiscent of Ally Sheedy in Breakfast Club, which is appropriate since you’re going to see a band whose debut album looped its way through the sound system of your convertible Cabriolet nearly three decades ago. Your husband tells you, you look pretty, and you make a joke about the dress and the jean jacket and the fanny pack as an homage to the decade you met—as an offering to the ’90s gods.
At the venue, a winery on a mountain not far from the one where you exchanged rings, you lean against a cocktail table on a veranda overlooking Silicon Valley, where you settled when The City fog drove you in search of warmer evenings. You notice your husband’s summer tan, the creases in his brow, his thinning but still-there, grey hair and feel both pride and sadness for how hard you’ve both had to hold onto this marriage, to be here. You ask your husband if he thought you’d be married this long and he says, “Well, I didn’t think we wouldn’t.” Toasting glasses of champagne and amber ale, you take a selfie capturing the view of the mountains you love, agreeing that this is a reasonable answer.
The band plays songs that transport you to another time and place—before mortgages, careers, kids, dogs. Before marriage. They sing about misunderstood Maria and black-winged birds, and you are twenty-five, driving your stick-shift convertible down San Francisco streets, smoking Marlboro lights with your not-yet-husband in the passenger seat singing along and running his hand up your mini-skirted thigh at red lights.
When the crowd quiets and the lyrics speak of December and hospitals in winter, your husband threads his fingers through yours, unearthing pieces of your shared life buried in the years between you: His hands on the keys of a piano playing “Somebody” on your wedding day. Your hand in his as your water broke, and you breathed through contractions and brought two babies into the world. Patient fingers unfastening safety pins from tubes and changing surgical drains after your mastectomy. In the dark of an ICU, his cold sill hand in yours as you wondered if the coma would lift and the man you married would wake up.
What if, you think, after all that exhaling and life-building I am the one to leave it?
At bedtime, no longer a time traveler, you shed your ’90s garb. Instead of shots rimmed in salt and lime, you take aromatase inhibitors—the cause for the ache in your bones, but the trade-off you make to starve any rogue cancer cells in your bloodstream of the hormones they feast on to grow. At the bathroom sink beside you, your husband chases back a cocktail of a different kind: pills to keep the rhythm of his heart steady, to prevent the ICD in his chest from having to pace and shock him out of danger as it did on three occasions during your fourteenth year of marriage. When you nearly lost him a second, then third time.
In the waning minutes of the day marking your nineteen years together, you whisper, “Good night,” to your husband with one dog curled at your feet and another between you. Through the open windows, branches dance against the moonlit sky, making pictures in the negative space—a landscape you have memorized (every branch) because you have created together a life worth memorizing.
Jacque Gorelick has written for the New York Times, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books and more. She lives in California with her husband, two sons, and three rescue dogs. She recently finished a memoir about a family lost, then found. You can follow her on Twitter @jacgorelick.