I first see her sitting in my favorite chair on my patio. My Fireman found her and brought her to my house. The woman is slight and beautiful with translucent skin. Her bald head is covered with a flowered scarf that cascades down her back. Her hollowed, green eyes look up at me as she swivels back and forth, a nasal cannula trailing down her chest to an oxygen tank. The tubing swings like a pendulum with her every motion.
I’ve never hesitated to take in strays. I feel for her, this sickly girl, but I don’t want her here. This one scares me. My Fireman says there’s nothing we can do, that she has to stay. Though I have two spare bedrooms, I set her up on the sofa downstairs, far away from where we sleep. I cover her with the quilt made from my dad’s old clothes after lung cancer stole his breath. I give her my least favorite pillow so she won’t get too comfortable. We stare at each other but don’t speak.
My Fireman stays over that night. As we get ready for bed, there is no mention of the sick girl and we fall asleep wrapped in each other’s arms as if nothing has changed. I awaken at 3:33 a.m. sweating, with my dog smothering the crux of my knees. The Fireman’s side of the bed is cold and empty and my heart races with the knowledge something isn’t right. I look in the other bedrooms, finding them dark and unoccupied. I creep down the steps and I see the Fireman and the girl sleeping on the sofa enveloped by the light of the moon. Facing each other lengthwise, melted into one large mass, her arms are holding him tightly as the hiss of her oxygen permeates the night. My Fireman is sleeping peacefully, unaware of the grip that she has on him, the effect that seeing her devour him, has on me. The girl looks through me with a slight curl to her lips as I begin to cry. I think she’s smiling at me.
I scream the battle cry of every scorned woman.
“Oh, HELL NO!”
The Fireman leaps up and my anger tries to punch him in the stomach, my rage attempts to kick him in the knees. How could he let me love him and then let this woman in my house? I’m sobbing and thrashing at the air as the Fireman’s palm on my chest holds me back. I am too short to be effective or cause any real harm to his 6′ 3″frame.
I’m getting nowhere. I see the girl is still laying on the sofa, looking bored. She pulls the blanket up to her chin and rolls over, settling in.
I had this same dream every night for two weeks before the Fireman’s PET scans, subsequent bone marrow biopsy and aspiration, and in the stressful weeks waiting for the results. During this time, the girl and I have gotten to know each other all too well. I now know who she is and what she represents. She won’t leave me alone. I hate her.
My Fireman is a two-time cancer survivor. Diagnosed with a rare type of Lymphoma first in 1998 and again in 2003-2004, what he has is somewhat treatable, but not curable. Though in the past he’s had surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy, it’s been fourteen years since the disease has needed a good ass-kicking. You begin to think that after fourteen years you’ve gotten a pass. And then your pass starts bruising and bleeding and the girl with no hair shows up in your dreams, sleeps with your man. You can run, but you can’t hide.
I remember the first time I saw the Fireman. He was in uniform and walked through the doors of the theatre where we both volunteered. I was married, and not in the market for a handsome man, but he happened to catch my eye. A commanding presence, I thought him a bit odd, and he made me nervous. Over the years, we never grunted more than a hello to each other. We ran in different circles. Or, so we thought.
It was six years later that the Fireman and I had our first conversation.
I was going through a divorce at the time and his seven-year relationship had crumbled. Deeply sad, and incredibly sick, I had spent the day at Duke University Hospital dragging myself from specialist to specialist, looking for answers to my latest health challenge. Though still connected in name, my soon to be ex-husband no longer felt bound by ‘in sickness and in health’ and my kids were grown and gone. It was the first time in my life that no one knew where I was, that I wasn’t well. If I didn’t come home, there was no one to miss me. It was an isolating feeling having no one to account to. I used Facebook as my friend to “check in.” Hello, world. Here’s where I am. Please make me feel less alone.
That evening I received a message from the Fireman, the first of many in the coming months.
“Why are you at the hospital? Are you okay?”
Umm…Why is the hot, scary Fireman writing me?? Do I message him back?
I write, “I’m okay as I’m ever going to be. Which, is generally not good. But, I’m not dying or anything. Just struggling with some things. Today, it’s my heart. Tomorrow, who knows.”
“I’m a Duke patient, too,” he typed.
We both had complicated health histories, scary medical conditions, things we lived and breathed with each morning as we got out of bed, fears that lived in our heads each night as we fought sleep. You could trace my health history with a finger, going from scar to scar. His body was a map of where his cancer had been, where the doctors feared it might still be.
The first time we met for drinks he brought me a beautiful heart made of stone I could easily hold in the palm of my hand or place in my pocket. The Fireman told me my heart was stronger than the doctors could imagine, and to carry this as a reminder of that. Though not intended as a romantic gesture, it stuck with me, that heart. I kept it on my desk at work, ran my fingers over the strong, smooth surface when the day became difficult. I realized he wasn’t afraid to be friends with a woman he might lose.
Over time the Fireman showed me his scars and let me pretend I had none.
When the Fireman showed up, unexpected, at an 8:00 a.m. MRI appointment I had on a Saturday morning, I knew we may one day perhaps be more than friends. He waited for me in the lobby – the only support a person can give to someone going through an MRI. Afterward, he walked me to my car and said goodbye. As he took the first steps away from me towards his pickup truck across the street, he turned around and came back. The Fireman took my hand for a moment and stared into my eyes longer than he should have. He said he felt like he was leaving something very important behind. Did I know what that was?
“Is it your jacket?” I said.
He laughed and shook his head shyly, dropped my hand and walked away.
Four years into our relationship, lymphoma has entered the Fireman’s life for the third time. You know that song, “Here, There, Everywhere?” It feels a little like that.
When treatments began, the girl from my dreams left my house, replaced with nightmares of not having enough.
Not enough rehearsal before going on stage…
Not enough money to pay my mortgage…
Not enough clothes to wear in the cold…
Not enough drugs to treat this disease today, or tomorrow when it strikes again.
During the day, I fear that I don’t have what I need.
Not enough patience…
Not enough strength…
Not enough courage…
…to be who I need to be for the Fireman and…
…not enough time to spend with the man that I love.