Within the first two weeks of having met him, I learned two things:
1. He was married, and had a child.
2. He had terminal brain cancer.
For a rational person, either one of these things by itself would act as a giant red flag, screaming, “No good can come of this! Leave while you still can!” But the combination?
Pursuing a relationship with that much baggage from the outset would be purely idiotic. Admittedly, our relationship may have started out as a form of rebellion, or as a rash attempt at spontaneity. Or maybe it stemmed from the paradoxical desire to make a mistake and to create memories I’d look back upon fondly, chalking them up to the fallibility of youth. But that’s not how it
The wife (who became his ex-wife three and a half months into our relationship) bore less and less influence over time. Once the divorce was finalized, her presence in our lives became almost negligible. But his daughter and his cancer both persisted. It seems unfair to group those two very different things together—after all, one’s a chubby, smiling 18-month old and the other is a veritable death sentence. But for me they carried similar weights. Together they determined a future that was not mine to live, and yet it had become my reality.
It should have been easy to abandon this relationship. Everyone around me pointed out the obvious: I was weeks away from attending one of the world’s most prestigious universities, while he had spent half a semester in school before dropping out so he could support his family. I had an entire lifetime ahead of me, a future free of commitment or burdens; he had less than a decade and a future bounded by past mistakes.
But for the first time in my life, I simply decided not to care about what other people thought. For the first time, I stopped thinking about life in calculations, carefully planning my “path to success.” Because, for the first time, the line between success and failure blurred. Life itself became a privilege. Nothing seemed objective anymore, as the social constructs I was once bound by were shattered in my pursuit of a man who had broken every rule I’d ever learned.
I remember one summer afternoon we went up to Canajoharie Creek, a little park an hour west of us. My mom had already forbidden me from seeing him at this point, but who’s ever listened to the word “forbidden”? It was humid as hell that day, and we changed into our swimsuits just beyond the “Private Property” sign. We’d been walking along the creek’s edge for no more than ten minutes when, as the weather station we never checked had predicted, the skies opened up.
If you’re picturing that scene from “The Notebook,” that was exactly what it was.
As we stood frozen in a beautiful moment, we realized that we’d left our bags—with our phones, dry clothes, and wallets—at the edge of the creek, unprotected from the pouring rain. We ran back, with him laughing and me terrified that my brand new iPhone had been destroyed. But we got there, the phone was fine, and he (still laughing) carried my bag as we ran back to the car. The rain was decidedly less romantic once we left the creek; we were freezing in our bathing suits, and our feet sunk quickly in the mud.
The end of the summer came quickly, as it always does. He wanted us stay together, and to be honest, despite what everyone was telling me, I did too. I had no idea what a future together might look like, but, for the first time, the future didn’t seem to matter. Yes, he had a complicated family history. Yes, he had cancer. But how could I possibly look back on that day at the creek and remember anything but happiness?
I came to accept the idea that I am no more guaranteed tomorrow than he is, that a future can be imagined and dreamed about, but never planned. By the end of that summer, I felt happy for the first time. I was no longer filling my days with preparations for the next ten years of my life, but instead with crazy adventures alongside a person who might not have that long to plan ahead for. The fact of the matter is that he, this person who almost everyone in my life so readily condemned, had shown me the difference between being alive and living—the freedom that comes from pursuing your own dreams rather than those manufactured for you.
On the surface, sure, he’s not the perfect guy. The fact that we’re still together nine months later seems improbable. The idea that we might spend another nine months together seems insane. But even if today’s the last day we spend together, knowing that we’ll spend it urgently, following wherever our whims lead us, makes the reality that we’ve all come to dread no less than a beautiful thing.