Love, Death and Cancer

In loving memory of Felix Rodriguez Jr. (1982 – 2016)

When I was 34-years-old I was diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of thyroid cancer and I was certain that I was dying. My loved ones told me I needed to prepare myself for death. But, I didn’t want to go. I wasn’t ready. Dying was unfair and awful. I would love to paint myself as being brave, but the truth is I was more like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum – an “I want to live, I want health, I want myself back” tantrum! There is still so much I want to do with my life and I’m not ready for it to end.

My friends tried to comfort me by telling me that I’ve already lived at least three lifetimes. They told me that I’ve had a full and exciting life filled with adventures and accomplishments. So I guess that makes it ok for me to go? Maybe they’re right – maybe I’ve crammed too much life into such a short number of years and now I’m done. Did I live on “fast forward” and accidentally get to the end of my life too quickly? I do chase adventure, challenge, art, education, travel, relationships and food. So yeah, my life has been incredible, awesome and full.

In the months I spent in bed, enduring cancer treatment induced ailments, I tried to be practical and come to terms with dying. I played the movie of my life in full technicolor daydreams – the time I backpacked alone through Australia when I was only 19, the time I convinced the public health faculty at Emory University to let me be the first to write a novel instead of a traditional master’s thesis, the time I got my sex educator certification and then two weeks later I met Dr. Ruth, the time I was accidentally on the Price is Right and made it all the way to the Showcase Showdown and then lost it all…or the time I fell in love with Felix in Bakersfield but didn’t realize it.

*          *          *

My mother had moved to Bakersfield while I was in college because it’s much less expensive then living in San Diego where I grew up. After graduation, I moved in with her because I was very sick and I wanted to take a few years off to focus on my health and get some work experience before I went to graduate school.

Living in Bakersfield, I was a fish out of water – a poet and environmentalist in a conservative, monoculture, factory farm, oil drilling, air polluting town. One day my mom took me to Lassen’s to cheer me up – a natural food store in a fast-food desert. As we approached the storefront the automatic doors opened and that’s when I saw him. He was shelving cans on the end cap and I was instantly attracted. He asked if he could help me and then he spent the next 20 minutes walking me through the store showing me all their gluten-free options. At that time, I had been diagnosed with Celiac disease – one of the many misdiagnoses I’ve had over the years – and was on a gluten-free diet.

I thought he was gorgeous so I dubbed him my “imaginary boyfriend” and every time we went to Lassen’s I would joke that I was going to see my “boyfriend”. Years later I told him that story, and he admitted that he also remembers the moment we met. He was instantly attracted to me too. “Why do you think I spent so much time helping you?” he said with a serious and humble look in his eyes. “It was love at first sight.”

A few months later I got a job at Lassen’s and that Friday Felix asked me out to dinner and a movie – but I said no. Every week he asked me out and every week I said no. I’m not a tease, it’s just that I had discovered that he had hooked-up with several of the women who worked at the store and I didn’t want to be another one of his conquests – so we hung out at work and became friends.

After about 6 months, I realized I needed a new job with weekends off so that I could focus on studying for the GRE and applying to grad schools. I gave my notice, and on my last day Felix asked me out as usual but this time I said yes – and the rest, as they say, is history. We started dating and it was fantastic. He was easy to be with.

I have beautiful memories of him. Like, when a thunder storm ripped through the night sky, and he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me outside. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get my shoes wet. But when we got outside he kissed me under the trees as large drops of water soaked through our clothes in the dark hot air. I lost my breath and felt dizzy but he held me tight against him – safe in the darkness. It was beautiful and loving and passionate.

The only glitch was that I never fully trusted him and so we never talked about being exclusive. I wouldn’t even let him drive my car. It drove him crazy.

“Let me drive your Lexus!” he’d say.

But I always said no. He had totaled his car right before we met and I didn’t trust him with mine. I needed my car to get out of Bakersfield. I needed my car to move on with my life. I was planning to study global health and travel the world making peoples’ lives better through health education and research.

I didn’t want to fall for him because my heart was set on going to graduate school.  I didn’t want to fall for him because I didn’t want to know if he was sleeping with other women. I didn’t want to fall for him because I didn’t want to get hurt. But I must have fallen for him anyway because when I left for grad school we never fully ended. We continued to text and talk and it surprised me! He was supposed to be a fun distraction while I waited for grad school to start, but instead a true friendship developed between us – and over the years we kept in touch. We saw each other every time I came back to California and our chemistry never subsided.

It was 10 years since we first met when I texted him and told him that I still had feelings for him and that I wanted to see him again. I didn’t like that things seemed unfinished between us and I wanted to see if there was still a possibility for us to be together. He had a daughter now and I was still living several states away but I wasn’t sure that those were reasons for us to be apart any longer – life is messy but we never wavered and I started to wonder if that was a sign of something deeper.

He replied, “Although our lives are complicated, I believe that the universe has been keeping us together for a reason and I’m sure that we aren’t over. This isn’t the end. We’ll meet again, I promise…I just hope you aren’t taken by then…this song always reminds me of you.” Then, he sent me the lyrics to Ed Sheeran’s, “Photograph”.

*          *          *

Six months later I was diagnosed with cancer, and two months later I lay in bed enduring cancer treatments and trying to prepare for my death. While sifting through memories, I accidentally decided to live. My life has been wonderfully surprising and I crave more of it – I want more love, more creativity, more laughter, more tacos and more French fries. I want to live!

As I lay in bed, willing myself to survive, I thought about Felix, an ex-boyfriend I hadn’t seen in years. I wanted him, but I couldn’t tell him I have cancer. I didn’t want him to know that I was sick. I didn’t want to worry him. I didn’t want him to see me like this – cut up and scarred and weak and demoralized. I wanted to call him. I wanted to text him. But I didn’t know what to say. So I put off telling him, and I regret it every day because while I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I might die, Felix was killed in a car accident.

I don’t know how to process his death. When I think about it, my reactions are nonsense. I want to scold him for dying – was he driving recklessly – that’s why I don’t let him drive my car – and then I feel guilty for jumping to that conclusion – and then I want to hold him – and then I think, we haven’t been together in years.

Why is life a fickle punisher that doesn’t make any sense? Felix was young, healthy and loved his daughter with all his being. Why did he die and why did I live? Cancer is supposed to be a death sentence, but so far for me, it isn’t. What the hell?

It’s been a year since I lay in bed trying to cuddle with death and now the doctors’ say that I am not dying. I am still recovering and I am still exhausted and I’m not quite myself – but the cancer isn’t going to kill me. I am waiting to see where the chips fall – will I make a full recovery and get my energy back or is illness and cancer cells my new normal? I am still trying to understand my diagnosis and I am still grieving Felix’s passing.

I know I can’t make myself beat cancer. I know it’s not up to me, but every day I claw and bite and fight for my life. And every time I hear the song, “Photograph” I think of Felix and I cry because a decade-long loving sexy friendship is a rare and wonderful thing, and his death is a nonsensical loss that will forever cut at my heart.

Loving can heal, loving can mend your soul
And it’s the only thing that I know, know
I swear it will get easier,
Remember that with every piece of you,
and it’s the only thing we take with us when we die.”

– Ed Sheeran

1 Comment on Love, Death and Cancer

  1. A beautiful and important piece. Thanks for writing it. I will take it to heart.

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