I have not had to face cancer alone. At every turn on this journey my wife Elizabeth has been at my side confronting with me each new complication that‘s arisen. What is it like for her, contending with this cancer that intimately affects her, but is not her own?
Often I wonder if she resents the situation she finds herself in. Whenever I ask about it, she says two things in reply: “There is nowhere else I’d rather be, than here with you.” And she adds emphatically, “Besides, you know that if the situation were reversed, you’d say the same thing, you would do the same for me.” I know she is right about that, and I know that despite the moments of sadness and frustration and tiredness that are all part of caring for a partner with cancer, she means what she says about wanting to be there for me.
I know all this because for some time now Elizabeth and I have had to admit that we are enmeshed in what the French call a ‘folie à deux.’ Psychiatry has adopted the term to describe a ‘mutual delusion.’ Thus, our own ‘folly for two’ has become our favorite description for the unfettered love, the day-in-and-day-out caring and the slightly crazy devotion we have developed for each other over the years. It’s a ‘’folie à deux d’amour,’’ a ‘lovers’ folly,’ as it were. And it’s not something we’re likely to get over; our shared foolishness just seems to get worse. As we get older, our love feels like something you’d expect to see in adolescents: it’s as giddy and fulsome and happy as a honeymoon’s romance, but far more reliable.
That’s because this ‘lovers’ lunacy’ has been tested, and in no greater way than by this illness we’re both struggling with, both together, and individually in our own way, as well. We talk a good deal to each other about how we’re feeling. Sometimes we know what the other will say before it’s uttered; sometimes we acknowledge things going on inside us that startle us — we surprise not only each other, but also ourselves. Recently we admitted that neither of us thinks it’s a good idea to share in detail those moments when we worry that this disease will finally defeat us by causing my death. We both know that there’s a chance that will happen and we will face up to that as may be necessary, but we don’t see that we’re doing each other any good by rehearsing extended anguish and worry with the other. We’ve found that there are more important things to share.
Cancer, Elizabeth has said, can teach you to recognize what really matters and what doesn’t. Sometimes those truly important things are often small, everyday, easily-missed things. Perhaps they’re best recognized by us, the ‘mutually deluded,’ because in the scheme of things, they seem so inconsequential. It’s momentary things that we savor, like the sheer delight we take in each other’s company, the heightened concern and consideration we try to show each other, the comfort and consolation that comes with just knowing that we are both so well loved. Oddly, this abominable disease seems to encourage these gratifying moments: when you’re not doing so well, acting carefully and taking care of each other feel like things that should take priority.
There are times when we are short with each other and even unkind; it’s hard not to take things out on your beloved, especially when you’re tired by the responsibilities or weakened by the symptoms that come with cancer. We’ve both become pretty adept at recognizing the unfairness of our bad behavior: we’re very quick to stop ‘dumping’ our frustrations on the other once we recognize what’s happening. We’ve taken to repeating a stock phrase Elizabeth’s brother first coined, an outrageous apology one of us makes to the other when we’re being unfair: “I’m sorry, I love you, and I’ll never do it again!” (“Until the next time, of course,” we both think to ourselves, as one of us quickly offers the offender the immediate words of forgiveness!)
It’s not that we don’t still have our personality-based struggles to contend with. Elizabeth can sometimes get into what I call ‘mission mode,’ whether it’s while we’re doing a crossword puzzle together, or trying to get out the door to be on time for an appointment. When we’re working on a puzzle, she’ll start with the low-hanging fruit of a simple clue and proceed with disciplined, unflagging purpose to each succeeding clue, sometimes leaving me in the dust. I approach crosswords, (and much of life, for that matter), in a more roundabout manner. I like to think about the clue, roll it around in my head, make several associations and approximations, and then come up with an answer. Needless to say this can drive the likes of Elizabeth up the wall, especially in those many moments when the contemplative approach needs to give way to the more practical arts in life. But in these days of struggling with serious illness we’re finding that even the annoying defects of each other’s virtues can become, well, almost, endearing. Boy, do I lean on Elizabeth for getting us through some demanding moments, and she seems to make more time for and enjoy the reflection and the revery I sometimes bring to the table.
In a word, what cancer has done for us is to put our partnership into sharper focus. We sense how precious a thing it is, how privileged we are just to be together. We have built something both of us have always wanted. We’ve created a fearless folly of mutual dependence, devotion and delight. And, paradoxically, the dreaded illness with which we contend has so nurtured our life’s project that now it seems to have no limits. Our ‘foolish love’ is too far gone. Cancer cannot defeat it.