Aaron’s first round of treatment is 30 days of radiation and chemotherapy, starting right after Thanksgiving.
Chemo, it turns out, is a pill. Well, two pills, really, delivered to our home individually packaged for each day.
I clear some plates out of the cabinet and line the bottles up in chronological order, then make a Google document to chart who will drive him to each appointment. There: order in the face of chaos. Fuck you, cancer, I’m organized.
Radiation means going to the hospital, where Aaron is fitted with a plastic mesh helmet that will keep him clamped motionless to the table while they zap his brain. The nurses, who I assume are all named Amanda or Sarah, are sweet and kind and perfectly lovely in that generic Midwestern way. Do I want to see the room? They ask. Uh, Sure. I can stay until it’s showtime, when laser lights are aimed to shoot at cross sections of his head marked with masking tape and Sharpie and it’s time for me to sit in the waiting room drinking weak tea.
Before I leave, Aaron gives me the thumbs up from his place on the table, and I hear the heavy door lock shut behind me as I walk down the hall.
In an empty room, I see the other plastic mesh braces that the Amandas and Sarahs have made for the thousand other patients who need cancer zapped from their bodies every day. It’s a room of plastic ghost parts: ample bosoms and hips and midsections and then a tiny, tiny head, each of which is waiting to be filled by someone in the World’s Saddest Waiting Room.
It’s quiet, always, but the wives and husbands and daughters and friends and neighbors who are waiting like I am occasionally exchange small amounts of eye contact or a hesitant smile before they return to their tattered waiting room magazine.
Their loved ones are sick. They are aging Korea and Vietnam vets shuffling in with their VFW hats. They are retired librarians and grandmothers. They are in wheelchairs or walkers with soft, downy hair and mottled, discolored skin.
They aren’t like Aaron, in his smart clothes and crisp sneakers. They aren’t going to go home and watch Eastbound & Down and plan trips to Europe. They aren’t getting married in a few days, aren’t just starting the best part of their life with the best person they’ve ever met.
We don’t belong here, I think. We don’t. We don’t. We don’t. But then, nobody really does, so I bide my time staring at my phone until Aaron is walking toward me down the hall and we can both get the hell out of here again.
There wasn’t a ring.
There wasn’t a knee to take or a question to pop because between the two of us there was no question.
i love you.
i love you.
when this is all over, we’ll be married.
There was no hidden cameraman to take “candid” photos and no family waiting to celebrate the betrothal. There was no Facebook status to update and no posed photo shoot to book and no pile of bridal magazines to buy.
There was just a girl and a boy and a brain tumor and the promise of forever thrown in the face of uncertainty, with only the heart monitor and his mother, sleeping quietly in the armchair next to the hospital bed, to bear witness.
Just the two of us clinging together in a single hospital bed like a life raft, promising to sail these dark, uncharted waters together.
Two weeks later on the night of his diagnosis, we lay together in his parents bed and swore the same oath, sealing it with kisses and clasped hands and tears that soaked the pillows under our heads.
No ring. Just a promise that beats in our hearts and fills our lungs and strengthens our bones: Forever.