“Will he beep at the airport?” my dad wanted to know. The surgeon had just told him that, after scraping my insides clean of lymph nodes (in the way one scrapes a pumpkin clean for a jack-o-lantern), he used metal clamps to hold and seal the open tissues together. Those clamps are inside me for the rest of my life. Have you ever spilled a box of binder clips across the floor? That’s what an x-ray of my abdomen looks like. I’m essentially Iron Man, except inside out.
Before there was any metal, before there was any cancer, there was Sarah. Three years ago, I met Sarah at a poker party and was immediately charmed by her exuberant personality. She is a composer and pianist and, although I know less about music than someone who’s watched one Baby Einstein video, it was incredibly easy to connect with her. We may use different languages, but we’re operating from the same creative place.
An admiration for the other’s work was one of the three pillars on which our courtship was founded, along with faith, and incessant laughter. We realized that Parks & Recreation helped calm us after a fight, so we’d leave them on the DVR. I told Sarah once that I liked listening to her practice piano while I’m writing and I don’t think, as far as she’s concerned, that I could have made a more moving declaration of love. It’s an understatement to say we’re compatible.
The night my back pain sent me to the ER, I was with Sarah at her apartment. I had, ironically, come over to give her a back rub after a long day on the piano bench. Shortly after walking through the door, I crumpled to her carpet. We didn’t know it yet, but the tumor was wedged between my aorta and vena cava, which creates a sensation of continuously getting beaned in the back with a Nolan Ryan (or Brandon McCarthy) fastball. Why I love Sarah: even though she was clearly very concerned about me, she was also visibly amused by the rhythmic way I was bouncing my legs against the floor. We quickly named the move “Dancing on Snowflakes” and, even when overcome by pain, the term was always enough to make me smile.
As question marks turned into diagnoses and diagnoses turned into treatment regimens, Sarah was right beside me, never wavering. A doctoratal student, she put off a class so that she could drive me to chemo every day… and sit next to me for all six hours of it. She would rifle through every cupboard and corner of the fridge until she found something I was willing to eat. She would memorize my blood work results so she could keep track of my progress. Even when we were in the murky dregs of chemo, she found ways to make me laugh. And even though I was often unconscious for most of Thursday through Sunday, she never watched a new Parks & Rec without me.
To say that Sarah was an amazing girlfriend during treatment diminishes the level of care she provided and the self-sacrifice she made. To say she was an amazing caregiver diminishes the absolute necessity of the light-hearted and intimate moments that made cancer so bearable. When I woke up after the jack-o-lantern surgery, my first words were: “Where’s Sarah?” I needn’t have asked. She was, unsurprisingly, right there the whole time.
Cancer didn’t make me love Sarah. Our relationship isn’t defined by adversity. I was in love with her long before I danced on snowflakes. But our romance has been tested and strengthened and board certified by adversity. The pressure didn’t make us crack, it irreversibly sealed us together. We’ve been through one of the bigger challenges life can present; we’re ready to take on whatever else it’s got.
On the night of June 14, I offered Sarah her own piece of metal, one that fits snugly around the fourth finger on her left hand. It’s a commitment, a declaration, a celebration. It’s an excuse to show the world how lucky I am. (And she doesn’t have to do the “Single Ladies” dance at weddings anymore, either.) Like the gold in the ring, our relationship’s strength and beauty was forged in the fire. You’re really starting to see what I meant when I said that “compatible” is an understatement, huh?
This isn’t The Bachelor or a Disney princess movie. The love story doesn’t end with a diamond. Sarah and I have many more chapters to write (and compose). But this is certainly - and I know I’ve overused this, so bear with me - an exclamation point in the middle of the narrative.
Tomorrow, we board a plane to visit her family. We won’t beep at the airport, but you better believe that, in our delirious joy, we will be making a lot of noise.