Under-Boob for Christmas

I’ve been chipping away at this one for the last four months, but it’s been a secret until now. It was fun to write and more fun to experience. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas full of all your hearts desires.

A Bonkers Idea Turns Into a Viable Plan

My husband is impossible to buy gifts for. He’s super picky. He researches everything before he makes any major purchase, and I’m pretty sure everything I’ve bought him has been accepted with a little disappointment. Long ago, I resorted to telling him to buy whatever he wants and that is his birthday gift. This is a system that works well for us. The drawback is that I never get to surprise him. 

I have a midsummer birthday and he has a late summer birthday. It just so happens that my birthday was spent in Costa Rica this year. It was the birthday to beat all birthdays. I’ve had cool birthdays in cool places including, Yellowstone, Hawaii, and Scotland, but Costa Rica takes the cake. We spent the day in Tortuguero National Park touring the canals by boat and then after dark we were able to watch a sea turtle lay eggs on the beach. It was amazing. We were all up in her business. I literally could have been her obstetrician. I can identify two other times in my life that I have been in awe. The first was when I saw Micheal Angelo’s David, and the second was when I watched open heart surgery as a nursing student. I’m not sure I was in full fledged awe while watching what can best be described as gooey wet ping pong balls dropping from a turtles nether region, but it was close. 

I got it in my head that Garry should have an equally cool birthday. I’m not sure how I expected to accomplish this with his birthday being on a Monday, and two weeks into the school year. Needless to say, it was a dud. I made tacos and gave him the red “you are special today” plate, but other than that it was pretty unremarkable. I didn’t even have a gift for him. My son and I have a running joke that we are going to get him a unicorn-pug. They don’t exist and he wouldn’t want one if they did, so that’s not happening either. I did buy him some Lululemon men’s $30 underwear about a week after his birthday, but that was because it was the only thing I could think of that he’d never buy himself. I figured I’d make it up to him at Christmas, but how….

It started like all my major life choices, as a joke. I met some friends for a walk by the river, and joked about doing boudoir photos for Garry. They both said I should. The next day I text my photographer friend, Raine, who is a genius and one of the few people I trust to make me look good on film. She was all about it. It is truly amazing how excited and helpful people get when you tell them you are going to take mostly naked pictures of yourself. I decided I didn’t want the typical roll around a bed in lingerie, either. Garry has seen that countless times. I decided to do something different. Something a little more, well, Garry. I also didn’t want to do anything half assed. Boudoir photos deserve your whole ass. My two best options were the CrossFit gym and the river. Nothing says Garry more than those two places. 

Our town has an ordinance prohibiting women from being topless in public unless they are breastfeeding. Luckily, the ordinance was met with an oppositional movement lovingly called “Free the Nipple”. Thanks to the free the nipple people there is a judicial injunction on the ordinance. I am currently free to bare my nipples in public as it is arguably my constitutional right to do so. This makes choosing a spot in the river a lot less stressful, as I don’t need to worry about being arrested for public indecency. The only real issue is scheduling them sooner than later, because I don’t want to be topless in the snow. Luckily, Raine has an opening in her schedule mid September, and the forecast looks balmy. 

Next is CrossFit. Obviously, I have to ask permission and have a coach let me in and lock up when we are done. I also needed a time when they were closed aka Sundays. Raine could accommodate the timing, but I still needed permission. Our gym is owned by a super cool dude with a super cool wife and they both would probably be fine with me using the gym for this purpose. In fact, they have told me more than once that they would do anything for Garry, but I suspect this isn’t exactly what they had in mind. Before I had the chance to ask the owner, I ended up having a beer with Lo, the manager.  I told her what I was planning and asked to use the gym, quickly adding that I would pay her. She said “yes” to the gym and “no” to payment. I told her she is welcome to stay and watch/coach my photo shoot too. She was all in and had some very good suggestions about wall-balls in stilettos. 

At this point I’m feeling pretty locked and loaded with a few important exceptions, the wardrobe and hair and makeup. The wardrobe will remain a secret for Garry’s eyes only. Let’s just say I committed the theme and I’m pretty proud of what I came up with. Hair and makeup are another story. There are two days in a girl’s life that she really should have someone else do her hair and makeup. The first is her wedding. The second is when she opts for midlife-crisis-nearly-nude pictures. I can get by doing my own makeup, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out I don’t do hair. My hair has turned into a special kind of beast over the last few years. I used to have super easy wash and go Marsha Brady hair. Now I have crazy mind of its own Bret Michael’s hair. I’m too busy/lazy to do anything new with it, so I still put all the effort into it that I did my wash and go Marsha Brady hair. The result is messy hair that is totally unacceptable for what I have planned, but that’s OK because I know a girl with mad skills.  She’s that immaculate girl that you actually DO ask to do your wedding hair and makeup. She’s also down for anything. When I emailed her to see if she could help me, I got a rapid, enthusiastic “yes, I can make you look like a porn star”. She even offered to do it at her house which was a necessity given the secrecy of our mission. Done and Done. 

Pulling It Off and Second Thoughts

My brother has always said I can’t keep a secret, especially when it’s my own secret. I tell everyone everything. I’m even more hopeless if I think its funny or clever or it makes me look stupid. Check, Check and Check. Christmas is still a long four and a half months away. Plus I have to be able to pull this off. The pictures haven’t even been taken yet. What I needed was a viable lie. It has to be plausible and not completely a lie. I’m much better at deceit when the lie involves some truth. I told Garry I was having a girls day with my friends Laura and Ana. I knew we’d be gone for a giant chunk of the day and evening, so I said we were hiking and getting dinner. This was a crappy lie, because I have never gone hiking with friends. My friends and I might go on a walk in town, but we don’t hike. We take pleasant strolls and follow them with wine. It didn’t matter, because he bought it. I invited Laura and Ana to be my audience during pictures. They were more than welcome to sit there drink wine and make fun of me. I also had my friend Crystal coming, so it really was turning into a girls day. 

Next I had to figure out how to get my PFD (personal flotation device or life vest), a raft paddle, lingerie, hooker shoes and some other unmentionables out of the house without it looking weird or obvious. I hatched a plan to start smuggling things in small batches to Crystal who would bring them to the photo shoot. The paddle was the only thing that made me nervous. Garry notices everything. I figured he would totally notice a missing paddle. I’m pretty sure this will need to wait until the day of the shoot, or I need to find another conspirator and borrow a paddle from them. There is literally no reason I would take a single raft paddle anywhere. ever. So without a backup story, I had no choice but to use stealth. 

For those of you who have lost track, I’m the girl with Bret Michael’s hair who can’t keep a secret and guess what? I am utterly lacking in stealth. I can’t even walk quietly. My walk has been called angry and powerful. It has been compared to a herd of large animals, but never anything stealthy. In other words, I came in like a wrecking ball. I’m also generally oblivious to things I should be aware of. For instance, I’m not entirely sure where Garry keeps the raft paddles. I think they are in the garage but I am not certain.  This is a little embarrassing because they are bright green, there’s probably eight of them, and I may or may not walk by them every day. BUT they could also be in the shed or storage room or our bedroom for that matter. I’m actually that oblivious. I still haven’t figured this one out, but I’m determined to pose in a river with a paddle, and not much else. Luckily, we are planning on sunset and the lighting will be kind to my aging body. It’s also Fall and low water so my chances of getting foot trapped and drowning are next to nil. Wouldn’t that be an embarrassing headline? 

My friend Katrina inadvertently reminded me that I’m forty-six and maybe documenting my body is not the best life choice. In her defense, she has no idea what I am doing. Honestly if I told her she would be a giant fan and probably supply me with food and drink to keep me fortified while I document my middle aged body. Katrina joined a gym and paid for a weight loss challenge. She was also giving her Facebook friends a play by play of her successes and failures along the way.  What I love about Katrina is she, like myself, does not believe TMI is a thing. She will give you ALL the information, and she is happy to listen to all your information. She is raw and shameless and utterly incapable of guile. I adore her. I had already planned and booked my boudoir shoot and suggested (without telling her I was doing one) that she should do the same when she meets her weight loss goal. She responded by telling me that she had done nudes as a wedding present to her husband, and has no plans to document her body again. Katrina is at least ten years younger than me, and I think she was early twenties when she got married. She might have even been nineteen. That was the first time it hit me that I’m forty-six, and maybe this isn’t a great idea. I also realized that I had three weeks to go-time, and I might want to get my body camera ready. 

I’m fitter than I’ve been in years. I do CrossFit three days a week, swim three days a week, and walk or catch a yoga class when I can. I am officially one norovirus away from my ideal body weight. I decided I should throw in a weekly bone-broth fast-day up until the shoot. This is something I don’t particularly enjoy. I’m not a giant pot roast person, but I become obsessed with thoughts of pot roast when I’m fasting. I think about nachos and bacon and all the salty crunchy fried things. I do, however, sleep hard and feel better when I’ve fasted. The day after a fast I usually give birth to a 4-5 lbs bloat baby and that feels pretty damn good. As I write this, I am five days from boudoir day and have three fasts under my belt. My middle is looking skinny, but I have two new problems. First I think Garry suspects I’m developing an eating disorder, and second my boobs are getting the rock-in-a-sock look. Face-palm. I did not want to lose weight off my boobs!! I want nice full boobs for this thing. I have five days to plump the boobs, but still keep the middle little.

Jackie, the girl who is doing my hair and makeup is also a bit of an amateur photographer and she told me she would only shoot boudoir pictures at this point. I pressed her on this and she said everyone wants their family pictures to be natural with no touch ups, but they also want them perfect. She said with boudoir photos they want them perfect, but don’t care if they are natural. In fact, women want you to Photoshop the hell out of them. It was in that moment that I realized my salvation in the form of Photoshop. Therein lies my hypocrisy. I have betrayed my gender. I do not ever want to contribute to unrealistic expectations for a woman’s body, but for the love of all that is holy Raine, you better Photoshop the crap out of me! 

The Shoot

I cleverly hid most of my props and wardrobe at my friend Crystals house and had my alibis set up. Garry and I use find a friend on our Iphones and can track each others location, so I had to turn mine off so it would look like my location was not available and I was not at the gym. I picked up Crystal and my gear and headed to Jackie’s for hair and makeup. Jackie worked her magic and gave me bouncy curls, flawless skin, smoky eyes and giant fake lashes to boot. We also killed a bottle of champagne while we were there. 

We got to the gym and Lo and Raine were already setting up. We opened the big garage doors for the best natural light. On a Sunday there isn’t a lot if any traffic on either side of the building, so we weren’t too worried about unexpected visitors. There is, however, a bus that runs behind the gym. It goes by pretty quickly and I don’t think they can see what is happening in the gym. I threw on outfit number one, Lo set up some rings and made a couple spot-on recommendations for poses while adding that it was terrible form and not to do it in a regular work out. Raine started shooting and I was super comfortable. I was having more fun than I really should have. I had so much fun, I started to consider there might be something wrong with me. I did a lot of dangerous things in stilettos. At one point I was hanging from a pull up bar wearing almost nothing when the bus that travels behind the building went by. Crystal and I still joke that someone probably took that bus back and forth for the whole shoot. Crystal also has nightmares where I fall off the pull up bar and break my ankle, and she wakes up with the snap of my bones ringing in her ears. 

The thing I hadn’t counted on was Lo’s hidden talent as an art director. I had only expected her to let us in and close up when we were done, but she was amazingly creative and every idea she had was genius. My favorite moment of the day was when Lo exclaimed, “wait we have chains in the shed”. Crystal, Raine and I said “bring on the chains” in chorus. They were huge and rusty and perfect. Total money shot.

The river was next. We missed Lo almost immediately. The girl has mad skills. However, the light was perfect, the weather was perfect. Raine is no stranger to giving direction and I’m willing to try anything. We only had to hide once when a biker came by, otherwise it was pretty private. I rolled around in the water for a while and got a few unfortunate mosquito bites, but overall it was a remarkable success. We wrapped up. I gave Raine a hug goodbye, and Crystal and I smoothed out the details of the story for Garry. 

I got home snuck the props back to their proper places and even managed to get a load of laundry in to clean the river algae out of my lingerie. I pulled it off. Garry has BS meter like no other, and I was amazed, but pretty confident I’d pulled it off. The next morning I got in my car only to discover a single stiletto on my passenger floor, fake eyelashes stuck to the console, and a wet thong in the passenger seat. How would I even begin to explain that? Thank goodness he wasn’t going anywhere with me. 

The Photos

A couple weeks later I got the link to see the photos. I’m so happy. Happy I swim. Happy I do CrossFit. Happy I fasted, and happy I chose the locations I did. The lighting was kind, my photographer was amazing, but more than anything I felt sexy and it showed. I have never liked my butt, hips or legs, but they were on point, sometimes even my best feature. I think every woman should do this. Get beautiful photos of yourself. Just do it. 

Becoming a mom is a hit to a woman’s perception of her body. Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding all feel very utilitarian. I remember going from thinking of myself as a sexual being to decidedly feeling so unsexy that the thought of being sexy again was laughable. Feeling sexy and sensual did come back. Slowly. Getting in shape and buying new clothes as my body proportions changed helped. My husband’s reaction to my narrowing waistline was nice. Mostly, I like living in a tighter body. I feel better. I catch myself in the mirror and am sometimes pleasantly surprised by what I see. More importantly, my son gets to see a strong, athletic, healthy mom. The money we spend on fitness in this family is almost like having a second mortgage. Every penny is worth it. It’s no longer about investing in long term health. It’s about investing in today’s health. We are drawing on that investment with every breath my husband takes. You don’t have to workout with the goal of doing CrossFit boudoir, but you do need to move because it’s what your body needs. It’s what your mind needs. It’s what your soul needs. 

I think I’m typical of most women when it comes to pictures. On first blush we hate pictures of ourselves, but often like them after some time goes by. When Raine sent me the completed pictures. I loved them instantly. Obviously I had some favorites. I couldn’t say how much editing she had to do, but my legs and butt looked pretty rocking for an older gal. As I’ve mentioned I never thought much of my legs, and my butt has seen better days.  Of course I found plenty of flaws because that’s what we do to ourselves. The corners of my mouth turn down more than they used to. My skin is not as tight as it once was. My jaw line not as firm. I could go on and on. But it’s silly to do that. They are beautiful and very much me in elements of life that Garry loves. I honestly can’t wait to give these to my husband. 

Mommy/Daddy Christmas Date

My son had a sleepover the second weekend in December. I decided this was the perfect time for Garry and I to exchange gifts, as Christmas morning might get pretty awkward with Daddy looking at Mommy’s semi-nudes. We dropped our son off and went to Old Town for dinner and drinks. The Christmas lights were up, the cocktails were yummy and Garry held my hand everywhere we went. We decided to head home early, exchange gifts and watch a movie. 

I handed Garry the gift box. As he opened it he looked at me suspiciously and said, “I have a feeling I’m about to have a lot of questions”. When he opened the book it’s a single picture of me in the river, spread across two pages. He laughed and for a second, my heart dropped. But it wasn’t that kind of laugh. It was the kind of laugh that comes from getting something unexpected and wonderfully delightful. It’s nice to know that after all these years he thinks mommy’s still got it. It’s nice to know I think so too. I don’t think he was in awe and it wasn’t like watching an endangered species lay eggs, but he loves it and I love him for that. Maybe I’ll try to make volume 2 when I turn 60. 

Moving Day

I wrote this a while ago and have sat on it for a lot of reasons. Number 1 the way I cope and the way Garry copes are very different. He wants privacy and I need to share everything. It’s a tricky balance between me feeling muzzled and isolated to him feeling exposed. But also, because I’m not very proud of myself for this one. I’m sad and a little ashamed. However a dear male friend of mine recently told me that he has always loved and respected my vulnerability. He encouraged me to never stop practicing vulnerability. Also, I started this blog for two reasons. It’s cathartic for me, but I also hope to give voice to things other people are experiencing. I had a really hard time finding resources that were relatable when Garry got sick. They all seemed very sterile and PC. Not my style. Life with cancer is a lot uglier than that. I’m uglier than that.

We’ve all experienced a moment when someone’s words force you to look at who you are. It’s as if they made you look in a mirror. Sometimes you like what you see and sometimes you don’t, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a little.

Recently, I diagnosed Garry and myself with post cancer stress disorder. Granted it’s not a real diagnosis and diagnosing is outside of my scope of practice.  BUT the fact remains that we both freak out about things that never would have bothered us before. You know about my risk aversion. I am terrified of anyone I love or even myself getting hurt. Garry’s stress is more psychological and insidious, and I haven’t always alleviated it. In many ways I’ve compounded it.

When Garry was diagnosed I remember having the surreal thought of “So, this is what will make me a widow”. Slowly but surely I psychologically moved into what I call “the widows waiting room”. I knew I might be able to leave the widows waiting room by the same door I entered, but I also knew I was likely to have to pass through the other door, the door that leads to widowhood. I became obsessed with widows in my life. I watched them like a stalker. I wanted to know how they stayed strong, what got them through, and more importantly how were their kids coping? I obsessed on them and I made my peace with becoming one of them. What I saw was encouraging. These women were so strong and brave and kept putting one foot in front of the other, for their children if not themselves. It gave me comfort that I could walk that road too, if I had to. But Garry didn’t die. The cancer died. He’s here today with no evidence of disease, and I’m still living in a widow’s waiting room. I’m scared to move out. I’m not sure I know how, and I don’t really remember what life was like outside of this room.

Garry has been well for the better part of the last year, and I have very consciously decided to stay in the widows waiting room. I thought I could stay here and no one would notice, except maybe my closest friends. I know it’s counter intuitive. I know it seems like a place I should run from at the first sign of an opening, but it’s not that simple. Being plucked from my happy normal life and dropped in the widow’s waiting room was more painful than I can explain, but I’ve gotten used to being here. I’ve gotten used to pondering and preparing for all the bad things. I’m afraid to leave, because what if I have to come back? In my mind it made more sense to stay than to face the pain of leaving only to be forced back months or years from now. Staying in this room, in this psychological place, was purely for my protection. It was my way of buffering a potential fall. It is a way to anesthetize my life.

Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, writes about the realization that her cancer was the most painful thing that happened to those she loved the most. She goes so far as to say that she is the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. No one thinks that when they look at a sick loved one, but the sick person feels responsible for the pain they cause however out of their control it is. Cancer gives everything an edge. Even love and joy will cut you, because you know they may not last. Loving a person with a life limiting illness hurts, and it probably hurts them even more to love you back. You are potentially saying goodbye to them. They are potentially saying goodbye to everyone, even their children.

It is normal to start grieving someone before they die. It’s called early bereavement. There are counselors who specialize in this. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t started grieving Garry’s potential death years ago. I probably started grieving him almost as soon as we had a diagnosis. It hurts. It will wreck you. When you suffer from a prolonged pain, physical or mental, you will eventually find ways to numb it. For me it was tasks. I stayed busy. I planned and worked towards making life easier if BD and I were to become a family of two. It numbed the pain. It was progress and motion and it gave me a sense of control. I got used to this life. I found other ways to cope that included distancing myself emotionally from Garry, and it became my normal, semi-comfortable life. I didn’t do it on purpose or plan it, but I did distance myself from him.

I’ve been in countless people’s homes throughout the end stage disease and dying process. It’s really common for people to disengage as they near death. I always assumed it was to help them leave this world. Disengagement was a means of softening the forever goodbye. Without intending to or even realizing it, I was disengaging for my own self-preservation. When Garry got well, I didn’t know how to let those coping mechanisms go. I didn’t want to. I felt like this continued state of being would protect me and keep me safe knowing the potential for the cancer to return. I had this illusion that I could secretly stay in the widow’s waiting room and Garry wouldn’t notice.

A few weeks ago we ran into a friend who is a breast cancer survivor. Like Garry, she is currently doing well and has no evidence of disease.  They started chatting about their current state and treatments or lack thereof. The conversation then shifted to how their marriages have evolved in the face of cancer.  They both acknowledged their awareness that their spouses were preparing for their death, and acknowledged that as painful as it was watching us plan a life without them, we needed to do that.  Then she said that thing. That thing that made me cringe, and feel so small, and ugly, and sad. She said, “Okay, so it looks like I’m going to be here, so you can come back to me now”. Garry didn’t say anything verbally but his body language showed absolute alignment and understanding with her statement. None of this was directed at me. It was a conversation between the two of them, and I was mostly standing to the side. It was, however, a bitch slap I needed and deserved. I know that was not her intention. She is very kind and thoughtful and I have a great deal of respect for her, and I think that is why her words carried weight with me. 

I’ve sat with that for the last two weeks. I’ve tried to justify staying in the widows waiting room, because “what if”. I even wrote his Oncologist and let her know where I am at emotionally. I asked if I’m being pessimistic/crazy. I told her, I’m stuck and I don’t know how to move on. She wrote me back within hours because she’s a brilliant physician and an even better human. She told me I wasn’t pessimistic, and that the cancer could come back, but then she gave me all the reasons to have hope. I can’t really explain how, but she kind of opened the door for me. It was probably a door that only she could open.

For the first time I started asking myself if I’d regret staying in the widow’s waiting room. It wasn’t about safety for me anymore. It was about regret, and I would regret staying here. I would regret it profoundly.  I don’t care if Garry has months or decades left. I don’t want to spend them in here anymore. I want to go home. It’s moving day. I need to pack my shit and go home. All of me, with nothing held back. I can take the hit of bad news down the road. I’m well-conditioned to take that hit, but I may not have to, and time in the widows waiting room with a healthy husband waiting for me is wasted time. I don’t want an anesthetized life. I don’t want a life of regret. I want a life of deep connection with the man I chose, and would choose again.

Love Letter

Love and acceptance are not the same thing. We can all think of people we love who have things in their lives that we can’t accept. Transversely we can all think of people who we know love us, but we also know they do not wholly accept us. Both relationships hurt. But what’s worse is when we do that to ourselves. We’ve all wexperienced looking in the mirror and not accepting the person looking back at you. When that’s the case it bleeds into all of your other relationships. These waves of love and acceptance travel with us through our families of origin, our friendships, marriages and relationships with our own children. Some of it is defined by our beliefs, but it can all be altered by life experiences and circumstances.

Today is my twelfth anniversary and I want to take a moment to immortalize my love and acceptance of Garry publically. He will hate this, but public praise is my love language and he needs to accept it. See what I did there.

My Love, 

Fallin in love is so fun. There is nothing like it, and falling in love with you was amazing. I had a feeling it was the last time I’d fall in love, and I was okay with that. You were so kind to me. You were interested in everything I said and did, but more than anything you made me feel safe. I was safe with you, body, soul and mind. You were my shelter. It was the most mutual relationship I had ever had.

The best relationship advice I’d ever received was from the husband of one of my hospice patients. He was a little gruf and called me Peach, because according to him “as far as nurses go, you’re a peach”. He told me, “50/50 relationships are bullshit. You give 100% and find someone who will give you 100% and that’s the only way marriage can work.” It didn’t take me long to figure you out, you’d give us 100%. 

Beyond that you are funny. I’ve always been a sucker for a guy that can make me laugh and tell a good story. The fact that a solid half of your story’s started with “So, I was drunk and naked”, made you irresistible. You are my favorite travel partner, and I love sharing this world with you, especially when we are drunk and naked.

You have a keen sense of fun and adventure tempered with a grounded thoughtfulness and stability. You are my match. You are the earth to my sky, and the ice to my fire. I love discussing politics and religion with you, even if we have different political affiliations and faith backgrounds. We have very different parenting styles but BD needs us both. He thrives when you challenge him, because he knows he can always crash and burn in the softness of mom. We are very good parents and I’m so proud of the work we do with our son. 

We have our failings of course. We can’t move a piece of furniture without arguing. We are often better at dividing and conquering than trying to work on a single project together. You are fiercely protective of your privacy and I don’t believe that too much information is a thing. I also lack the capacity to keep a secret, especially my own. 

We’ve had a lot of loss in our marriage, two dogs, grandparents, my dad, and a baby we never got to hold. You were my rock through two terrifying pregnancies and the joy of our only child. You took care of me in multiple orthopedic surgeries and a demon possessed gallbladder. Being a caregiver is not your favorite thing, but you’ve done a good job. 

Recently you told me, “I’m not the man you married”, and you’re not. You’re better.  You’re refined by fire. You are a polished river rock. Since your cancer we’ve done our best work as a couple, and we’ve done our worst. We’ve come very close to each other and at times very far away. Through it all the love has remained. Love is the easy part.  Accepting ourselves and each other as cancer has molded us and changed us is hard work. Luckily, you’ve never been afraid of hard work. Especially when that hard work is me. 

We are not the same, but I still choose you. You are still my match. You still make me laugh and tell great stories. You remain my rock. We have both been broken and mended over the years. I’m in awe of the battle you’ve fought and continue to fight. I’m in awe of the community you’ve built around you, the friendships you build and maintain. 

I have had to imagine a world without you, and it terrifies me. You are my best friend. You are my safe place. When I chose my husband I did a really good job. You are my best decision. Making a baby with you is the only thing that equals it. I love you. I accept you, all of you. You’re beautiful to me. Never leave me. Never leave me.

Be Like Steve.

I am publishing this with the permission of Steve’s wife, who is a brave badass and forever in my heart as are all the melanoma wives.

Steve was a guy I never met, but he changed my life in immeasurable ways for the better. I want to be like him, but I’m not. I’m entirely too selfish and pessimistic, but I hope to raise my son to be like him. 

When Garry got sick and we were in the early “notification phase” we were sent on a collision course to meet Steve.  The “notification phase” is the part where you have to decide who needs to know you have cancer and how much you tell them, and carry the guilt that you have just given someone you love the worst news of their lives. At some point I recall Garry saying, “I can’t keep doing this. I’m tired of hurting people”. We took care of family first and then chipped away at our friends. 

One of Garry’s early conversations was with his friend Jeff. Jeff is a teacher and a summer raft guide like Garry, and we go on family trips with them every summer. Jeff is also a coach. Two weeks prior to Garry’s call, Jeff had taken a similar notification call from his good friend and fellow coach named Steve. Steve had melanoma, the same melanoma. He also had a wife and a baby and one on the way. Jeff quickly connected Garry and Steve. 

At first they text each other, comparing notes on what they understood about their diagnosis and treatment options. Garry was scheduled for a massive surgical lymph node resection that would likely leave him with debilitating edema. Steve had already been to Anschutz in Aurora and was going to start a clinical trial that did not involve surgery. Garry was all on board for that. He didn’t want to lose his mobility. He had always been an athlete, and that defined who he wanted to be as a father. He wanted to teach Bo how to work an oar frame, and snowboard. He had no intention of being a sidelines dad. He told me almost from day one. “If I have to die I want to die snowboarding and rafting.” Mobility is key to my husbands quality of life, and that has driven most of the decisions we’ve made in regards to his treatment. 

I remember eavesdropping on their first conversation on the phone. It wasn’t hard, because Steve was loud and I could hear him pretty clearly. More than his words I remember his tone and his laugh. This guy was a breath of fresh air. He was the sun shining through the storm clouds. He was full of encouragement and grit. At the time, Garry and I were in a very bad place. My dad had died of a lesser form of melanoma not five years earlier. I was a hospice nurse and knew full well what a death sentence this was. We were grim. We were beyond grim. I couldn’t set us right. I tried to be encouraging and hopeful, but we were still listing hopelessly with no shore in sight. Steve’s conversations were like the hand of God reaching down and setting us back on our feet. I felt like Steve’s voice was the one convincing voice that told us to pull our heads out of our asses and get in the game, because we could still win this. Sometimes when you’re at the end of yourself, you need someone else to set your horizon line. Steve did that. Steve was a coach. He was our cancer coach. 

There is something remarkable about a man who can reach out of his crisis to pull you out of yours. Like I said I want to be like Steve, but I am so far from that. Garry and I joke about our level of compassion fatigue. Sometimes I can barely tolerate hearing about other people’s problems, let alone try and put them back on their feet. Steve paused his own crisis and reached out to us, he knew we were in psychologically worse place than he was, and he knew why. Garry had told him about my dad and my work. Steve said, “this is really in your face then”. He acknowledged that we were there and validated the reasons why, but then found a way to  grab us by the hand and pulled us out. He put us on the right road. He was sunshine. He didn’t have to do that. He was fighting for his own life. It’s a hard place to give from, but he gave. He gave abundantly. I will love him forever. It’s a debt I can’t repay. 

Steve died that July. We didn’t go to the service. I had hip surgery and was non weight bearing on crutches so getting around was hard. Plus, I don’t think we could face it. It was so close to home. I’ve always regretted that though. I would have liked to have been there. I would have liked to give thanks for a life well lived. 

I remember asking Garry if Steve had a wife and kids when they were first connected. He said he didn’t know, and I said I wanted him to find out so we could make them our new best friends. He said, “I don’t think they want to hang out with us. I don’t think they are as depressed as we are. I’m not sure we’d be good for them.”  I realized Garry was right. I don’t think we would have been good for them. 

I found out Steve died because of an article in the newspaper about the death of beloved coach. Garry and Steve had text less and less as they started treatment. I think there was apprehension in wanting to know how the other person was doing. Unless they were both responding well it would be hard. For one of them to be successful while the other was not would be hard. I had never known Steve’s last name, so I wasn’t certain it was him, but I was pretty sure. It was a sucker punch. God, I wanted him to beat it. I wanted family barbecues with the two surviving dads and their families. That was the dream. Then I saw the name of Steve’s wife and I realized I knew her.  We had gone to college together. She played basketball and was very good. She was funny and smart and just a solid cool chick. My heart broke for her, and for her babies. It could so easily have been me and my baby. I was scared to tell Garry about Steve. Garry was responding well to treatment, and I was scared this news would have an adverse effect on that. That night I showed him the article. He held the newspaper and sat down hard on our hearth, one hand going to his temple. It was blow. I could see that. He had believed it would be Steve that would fly through treatment and beat this. He looked at me and said, “That was so fast”. I know this beast, and it’s brutal and fast. Steve’s disease course was very normal. Garry is the outlier. 

I won’t speculate on why Garry is here and Steve is not. That is a dangerous exercise in futility and nothing good will come of it. What I do know is Steve was that guy who saved us. Who set us right. I wish I had known him. I wish I could thank him. I will tell my son about him, and try to remember what he did for us, for me. I will try to be like him. I will fall short, but I will try.