Love Song by Julienne (ft Cancer) Ch. 20: A Short Respite
Spring is starting to arrive here in Maryland. As I posted on Instagram this week, spring was a time that Julienne and I loved more and more with every passing year. The long winters – with the bare branches of the forest surrounding us, the chill wind that cut deep into the otherwise numbed fingers and toes from the neuropathy that was a side effect of her first chemo treatment, the grey days and long nights – took their toll on our spirits tremendously. The first sunny mild day of spring was like a holiday for us. Usually I’d be working that day, so when I got home we’d grab some wine and sit on the deck, listening to music and checking the plants for green shoots while the dogs chased each other around and curled up on the chairs with us. It was a real renewal for us, in the most cliched of Springtime tropes, but very real for us.
This past Sunday, I spent the warm sunny day, as much as I could, on a blanket spread next to her burial site. I packed a picnic, read a book-length poem called The Farm aloud to her (a Christmas present from a damn good friend), threw a tennis ball for the pups, hiked around, and took hundreds of pictures of the surroundings. It was a very bittersweet day. I was glad I could enjoy it, but I missed Julienne so much, because it was the kind of day we lived for, hoped for. I was able to feel her presence with me that day, like the feeling of being awake before her, knowing she’s asleep beside me and feeling calmed by the fact that she was there, but I just longed to be able to hold her hand as we walked along the fields together. I was at peace, and I was consumed with anger at the unfairness that she should be gone.
Spring was always a time of renewed hope for us. I don’t have any hope right now, not in the living world for myself, anyway. There isn’t anything I want or hope for or look forward to on this side of the line between life and death. Nor do I have much for the world in general. I see the world around me collapsing under the weight of incompetent and criminal governments, temperatures rising and continents burning because humankind is short-sighted and covetous, and now a pandemic that would have put Julienne’s existence into even more mortal danger spreading due in no small part to the criminal and incompetent governments and surrounding oligarchy ill-equipped to handle anything besides the lining of their own pockets. Of course a world like this is incapable of keeping one like Julienne, I think in the small dark petty recesses of my heart.
I didn’t have any idea how I would react when Spring finally arrived. I knew there would be no return of my Persephone. I wasn’t sure if I’d feel anything other than a little happiness for being able to spend more time at her site, for longer days that allowed me to catch the sunset with her. I didn’t think I’d have much of a lightening of spirit, or a feeling of joy at hearing birdsong again. I still don’t know.
On Sunday, I bought a pack of seeds. Rosa eglanteria. Briar rose. Like the name Princess Aurora was given as she grew up in secret in our favorite Disney film, the first Halloween costume Julienne wore when we were together. I’ve never grown a plant from seeds before. I might fail completely. But when I ordered them, I was thinking of a project Julienne and I planned last spring, a water feature we were going to design and put in the back yard, a place for us to sit together and listen to gurgling water as we sat outside of our forest home. I liked the idea of a hedge of sweet briar rose, in honor of my love, a place I can build and dedicate to her.
I hope I can get those seeds to grow.
On Friday, August 7th, 2015, less than 2 weeks after Julienne’s release for the hospital, she and I hopped into her parent’s Expedition and the four of us got on the road to North Carolina. Well, six of us. Spaniel Day Lewis and Anonymous, the lovable curmudgeonly Jack Russell elder statesman, would also be joining us. Our spirits were good, all things considered. She’d worked her ass off to get as much of the wedding planning done as possible – not like she was going to stop doing it on vacation, of course – and the prospect of us having 9 straight days together with no work or school or anything to separate us was heavenly. It would be the longest stretch together for us and we couldn’t wait.
We stopped somewhere for the night halfway to our destination. Her parents wanted to get on the road as early as possible, because there was essentially one bridge that goes to the Outer Banks and all of the beach house rentals start on Saturday, so everyone going to or from the place are all on the road at roughly the same time. It was like if Mad Max occurred solely at a country club. Lots of people in polo shirts and bucket hats and sundresses cutting and flipping each other off, tailgating, honking, taking short cuts down side streets that go back to the same congested road. Very relaxing.
Eventually we arrived at our home for the week, a big beautiful house right on the beach. It had like 6 or 8 bedrooms, a pool, pool table, foosball, all kinds of stuff. We unloaded everything, a not insubstantial portion of it booze, and everyone got settled in. Julienne’s parents kindly gave the master suite to Julienne and me, since it was the only one on the main level of the house. Stairs were still a little tricky for her.
It was mostly a wonderful week. Since Julienne had been there before, she had a bunch of places she wanted to take me to. One of the first trips was to a bookstore. We looked for things to read on the beach and decided on a horror theme, each of us finding a couple of books to read and swap. I’ll never forget the time we spent there, wandering, splitting apart, coming back with selections, and just talking. We hadn’t had many moments of quiet together in a while, not ones that weren’t preoccupied with hospitals and cancer and all that.
It’s a little hard to feel that now, a blessing and a deep, overwhelming sadness all at once. It’s been a little while since I’ve been able to write one of these, and that mix is tough to come back, and yet I’ve missed it so much. It connects me to her again so strongly, making the absence harder but bringing the sheer joy and peace and love of her presence back to me again. It’s all worth it. Always has been.
It was also the first real opportunity for me to spend time around her extended family, especially her aunt, uncle, and two cousins. We’d never gotten an extended opportunity to hang out before. I was a little worried, as a newcomer always is, but it was the perfect place to do it. I’m sure the booze helped too. There was, of course, occasional times of tension, especially when family is close together for a bit, and siblings get a chance to do the things that siblings do. Overall, though, everything was wonderful. I got to know everyone better, and they got to learn more about the older guy that Julienne was inexplicably into, and I think they ended up liking me (they’re stuck with me now, in any case).
There was poker to be played, puzzles to assemble, walks to be made, souvenir shopping to do, and a beach to lay on. Julienne and I did all of those things. Sometimes we would just go into the bedroom and be alone together, reading or talking. Occasionally we’d be sad, and we’d lie together, holding each other, waiting for the storm to pass. Most of the sadness came from a report Julienne got on Monday, August 10th. It was her pathology report from her surgery. She read the whole thing. Most of it wasn’t news, but one part of it was.
We were getting ready for an early dinner out at a restaurant. Julienne finished the report and got quiet. I could tell she was upset. By now we were both very attuned to the slightest cues the other gave that indicated a chance in their emotional state. I asked her what was wrong. She told me that the report said that one ovary had cancer, and the cyst on the other ovary had cancer, but there was no cancer present in the ovary itself. She’d lost her chance to have biological children, and one of her ovaries wasn’t cancerous.
It devastated her.
I remember going to the restaurant. She’d recovered herself enough to go to dinner. We got through the packed place and to the big table all the way in the back where everyone was sitting. I think someone asked her how she was doing. It was too much. Julienne got up and walked away. I hurried after her, walking close beside her, holding her tight, as she tried to hold herself together until she could get outside. We made it and she sobbed into my arms, frustrated and mourning and angry and despairing. We cried together like that for a little while, then her strength of will asserted itself. She wiped her tears, and said I’m okay, like saying it would make it true, and it did. We went back in. The stormcloud passed for a time. It came and went in the coming days, and we would take long walks together when they did. Her sun, though, was never dimmed very long.
I remember one day we talked about horror stories we wanted to write. Horror stories, of course. Julienne had a ghost story she wanted to write, and I had long wanted to do a classic horror investigation in a haunted house set in a fantasy universe (I apparently have a thing about genre-mashing, especially horror settings in fantasy worlds, that helps make sure that horror fans and fantasy fans will be dissatisfied with what I write. I’m a very shrewd marketer that way). She helped me work out the plot, and how things came together, during a two-hour period when we were getting ready to go somewhere. We kept talking off and on about the stories, coming up with refinements and talking through new ideas. We were both excited about our stories and couldn’t wait to write them.
(Unfortunately, they never got written. Time and events had a way of spinning out of our control. I still think about my story sometimes, and the time we spent talking about it, and I want to write it but…. Creativity is still hard for me right now. The pain and beauty of those memories is still so fresh. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to write fiction again. I guess time will tell. When I think about it, I can see her, hear her excited voice, see the rooms and places we were in, even smell the beachy scent of her hair, and I break down. Like now.)
I’ll never forget that week. It was restful and painful, a time to reflect and look to the future, muddy though it was, and to just spend time together without distraction. Wherever we were together was home, and for a week that beach was our home. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have that time and place, a chance given us by her father. I can still cast my mind back to that time and place with beautiful and heart-wrenching clarity.
Eventually, we had to leave. Of course, there was still wedding planning and work to do. One of the big elements affected by the speeded-up timetable was her wedding dress. Although it had been ordered months ago, it wouldn’t be ready until the following year. The gorgeous, flowing, perfect dress Julienne adored wasn’t going to be her wedding dress. Instead, she had a months-long battle to try to get the deposit returned ahead of her. She kept her chin up, but I knew how much it hurt her to not be able to wear that dress. Still, she never let anything get to her very long. She found another one that she liked very much, and that would have to be enough.
We got back to the farm Saturday evening. The next day, the work began in earnest. We had exactly 3 weeks left to put together our wedding.