Have you ever noticed how quickly people fall in love during action movies? They’re brought together during times of extreme stress, and at the end they live happily ever after, simply because they survived a hijacked bus or a zombie apocalypse.
But the truth is, healthy relationships aren’t based on surviving a common disaster. What happens when you get off the bus and Macho Man doesn’t help out around the house? Or you try to have a kid, and you realize that you can’t stand his parenting style?
There are other pitfalls to relationships that start this way, too. When you don’t like someone’s behavior, it’s easy to attribute it to their heightened level of stress. “Oh, I really wish Macho Man would stop shooting people . . . he’s not a killer, though, he’s just being chased by the FBI, it’s not his fault.”
But sometimes (in fact, most of the time I’d venture to guess) people show their true colors during times of stress. If someone calls you names because they’re having a hard time at work, they’re probably a dick.
The truth is, a lot life is dealing with stress. Work is stressful, money is stressful, kids are stressful. At some point in a long-term relationship, you have to face the death of a loved one. One of you might face a life-threatening illness. If your partner’s behavior makes the situation worse instead of standing beside you and working cooperatively, you’ve got a problem.
When you get married, you pledge to care for one another “in sickness and in health,” hoping that the “sickness” part doesn’t get much worse than a man-cold. But in my case, I’d been dating Bear less than a year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. We hadn’t taken any oaths.
I’m not sure how I expected Bear to react to my diagnosis, but he had a much stronger reaction than I expected. In part, I think my own denial made me think “this isn’t really cancer, so why is everyone so upset?” I know him and his values, so I didn’t expect him to leave me, but I definitely didn’t expect his immediate level of total dedication.
The first things he said to me the night I was diagnosed were: 1) I will find you beautiful, no matter what, 2) You will not fight this alone.
Since then, his sense of humor, positivity, and kindness have helped keep me afloat. When I was trying to eat a mostly plant-based diet, he brought me a bouquet of vegetables instead of flowers. He slapped a “Fight Like a Girl” sticker on the back of his car and sports a “Fight Together” shirt. He made me a boob cake for my 35th birthday (laughter keeps you alive!) and helped my 7 year-old daughter shave my head after I started chemo. On my hardest days, he has helped me to set small goals so I feel like I’ve accomplished something – which makes long, tedious days much easier. He’s helped me physically recover from surgeries, has attended every appointment, and has made sure that I feel supported every step of the way. He has never assumed to know what I am going through, and has allowed me to process this in the right way for me, without telling me what I “should” be doing. I can imagine that, in and of itself, is difficult.
To me, though, what he said to me the night before my double mastectomy really sums up the kind of man he is. He took a long walk with me, held me as I cried, and said, “I don’t want you to worry that this will affect how I feel about you. I’m not here for what you look like, I’m here for you. You’re going to have scars, but I’ve been thinking about it, and I actually think that’s pretty cool. Every scar tells a story, and the good thing is that I get to be part of your story.”
He wants to be part of my story of survival. And he is.
If I’d had any remaining doubts about him (which I did not), his actions during this process have solidified that I have found a Unicorn.
Cancer, as much as I hate it, has shined a spotlight on all aspects of our relationship and forced us to support and understand one another in ways that life wouldn’t have required us to do for years. We’ve had to talk about uncomfortable things, deal with really complicated emotions, and be empathetic to the other person’s needs.
Bear doesn’t have a big ego, and he doesn’t like attention. So I share this not because I think he will love it (guaranteed he will turn bright red), but because as a partner he has shown up for me every day, and I am so grateful for him. I wish that every cancer patient had a partner that is half as amazing as he is.
Last Valentine’s Day, he told me he loved me for the first time. This Valentine’s Day, I will have my last chemo infusion with this man by my side. This man, who has shown me with his actions every single day that he loves me.
I may be right in the thick of breast cancer treatment, but I feel like the luckiest human on the planet to have found this man. I am so grateful.