So a funny thing happened a week ago Friday while I was out Christmas shopping. I ran into the ex who dumped me after my breast cancer diagnosis.
While this was the first time I’d seen in him in about nine months, it wasn’t the first time we’d talked. Ironically, he’d called out of the blue the night before my Cancer Kiss-Off: Getting Dumped After Diagnosis story ran on Today.com. Talk about timing.
Not surprisingly, that initial phone conversation was pretty awkward, but at the heart of it was an apology, which was incredibly therapeutic for me to hear. After all, the guy had disappeared on the eve of my double mastectomy, with nary a phone call or text to see if I’d come out of the thing alive. I don’t remember a lot from that call except that he did say that he was sorry for abandoning me and that he was concerned that his disappearance might have adversely affected my healing. I remember thanking him for being man enough to tell me that and informed him that I was healing just fine, thanks to my strength and fitness level and all the love and support I’d received from family and friends. I remember, also, that I didn’t cry or scream or whine or call him names, although I did mention that a friend of mine had just the day before referred to his behavior as cold. And perhaps heartless.
Then all of a sudden, that cold, heartless guy was looking up at me as I was coming down an escalator at Pacific Place, a swanky shopping center in downtown Seattle. I got off the escalator and the two of us walked a little ways, stopping in front of the windows of Barney’s. He said I looked good (I figured he imagined I’d still be wearing a hospital gown and pushing an IV pole); I said he did, too. We then indulged in some polite holiday chitchat about who we were shopping for and so on and so forth, until it was time for one of us to address the 5,000 pound elephant lying on the shiny tile floor between us. I told him I still had lots of questions about what had happened and that I often wondered if he’d been in a car accident or arrested or perhaps been stricken with amnesia. What else could prevent a so-called friend — and lover — from picking up the phone to make sure I’d survived surgery? He apologized again and talked about his tendency to “unplug” when things got out of control. He then provided some additional information about troubles he’d had on his end — with work, with family, with money, etc. — qualifying it again and again by saying it was nothing compared to what I’d been through.
We talked for about 15 or 20 minutes and then it was time to go. He told me, for about the fifth time, that he was amazed I was even speaking to him. “It’s been a tough year,” I told him. “And life is short. I don’t want to carry around a bunch of anger and bitterness.” Besides, I said, gesturing towards the holiday shoppers, the decorations, the tree, the tinny carols, “It’s Christmas.”
I walked away feeling pretty strong about the whole thing until I got back to my neighborhood. That’s when I ducked into my local watering hole and downed a martini in about fifteen seconds flat, then text messaged about 17 girlfriends to let them know what had happened. Not surprisingly, I was suddenly very shaky. It wasn’t that this guy was the love of my life and seeing him again had completely done a number on my heart (it had been bruised, to be sure, but not completely battered). It was more that seeing him was like riding a bullet train back to those early days of diagnosis: the punch to the stomach when I learned about the four tumors that lay hidden in my breasts, the gut-wrenching news that I was going to lose my girls. Followed by my hair. And if luck decided to take another bad turn, my life.
Incredibly, he called the following Monday night and we talked again. Along with some mundane updates on where we were with our lives, there were more explanations and more apologies. I explained to him a bit of what I’d been through — “Yes, my hair looks different because I’m wearing a wig” — without going into too much detail (I was the first person he’d ever known with cancer and I wanted to try to educate him about the disease a little). He talked about how upsetting it was for him to be completely unable to fix things when they go wrong and that he sometimes just had to walk away when things were too broken. Like me, I guess. He alluded to the fact that the cancer was scary to him (yeah, I know what you mean, buddy). Then he told me that he was going to have to live with the guilt over the way he had treated me for the rest of his life.
“Well, I guess my job is done then,” I told him, laughing. It’s hard for me to remain serious about anything for too long — bad relationships, breast cancer, the abuse I suffered as a child. Joking about these things is the only way I can maintain power and control over them.
Then out of the blue, I asked if he would like to work off some of that guilt. “I need somebody to take my air conditioner out of my window,” I told him. “You did it for me last year. Maybe you wouldn’t mind coming over and doing it again?” He was there the next night and had the air conditioner in its box and in the closet before he’d even taken of his coat. He also had a Christmas present for me, a completely unexpected act of kindness (or guilt-induced kindness) that I still find sort of puzzling.
To be honest, the whole thing is sort of puzzling. I know that his disappearance was devastating to me at the time, even though deep down I knew our fledgling relationship was probably doomed from the start, with or without the complication of cancer. But that devastation wasn’t just due to his disappearance. It was also about the diagnosis, the surgery, the loss of my breasts, my health, my wholeness. Nine months later, it’s almost impossible to separate the strings.
The ex and the cancer are so inextricably linked, in fact, that it’s almost as if my breast cancer has suddenly shown up on my doorstep to apologize for fucking me up. Which, I have to say, is not an unwelcome turn of events. Part of me realizes that this is ridiculous, of course; that my ex is a man and nothing more. A scared, guilt-ridden, flawed man who fucked up royally but has enough self-awareness and strength to own up to it. And since it’s Christmas and since I’m a forgiving person, what choice do I have but to proffer some much-needed holiday redemption?
The real question, of course, is will I ever have the strength to forgive myself — my body — for getting sick in the first place? Will I ever be able to show it the same courtesy, the same affection, the same level of love and absolution?
That’s something I’m still working on. And if ever there’s a time for it, I’d say it’s now.