“I just feel… trapped.”
I sigh this into my phone for what must be the 200th time in 2020. My therapist’s on the other line, likely sighing alongside me. She asks what’s trapping me.
It isn’t one thing, rather, it’s everything, I say, listing off the usual suspects — coronavirus, global warming, our lack of childcare, nonstop deadlines, mounds of dishes. I know we’re lucky. I should be grateful. Right now, I’m not.
She hmms and ahhhs, nudging me on. Searching deeper, I confess a greater truth: I’m worried about my husband.
A cancer survivor, Jay’s been wrestling with health concerns during this pandemic. What’s more, his small business was adversely affected by it, and contract work is sparse. He’s not as happy as he once was. Then again, neither am I. With so many uncertainties ahead, Anxiety’s ensnared us and stalled any hope of forward motion.
I miss my pre-pandemic husband.
I miss my pre-pandemic self.
Later, my therapist asks a pivotal question: “If you were free, where would you go?”
I inhale sharply. Free to go anywhere? The thought feels too sinful to entertain. I imagine one glorious night alone in a hotel room where I read and write for hours, take a long, hot shower and sleep without fear of my preschooler rousing me. This isn’t a dream I can realize without abandoning Jay, so I dream bigger — I dream for us.
It all comes rushing out in a breath: All the Chicago beaches are closed, but two hours away there’s this little beach town called South Haven where a favorite author spends her summers, and through her words I’ve learned so much about it, and it seems like a nice place to vacation. Maybe we’d rent a house there. We could watch our son Jack play in the sand for hours.
“Why don’t you?” My therapist’s voice is playful, almost teasing. For years she’s been my confidante and my lifeline, offering simple yet revelatory suggestions such as “Be gentle with yourself” and “Try taking a daily walk and see what happens.” Her advice has never failed me.
My dream takes root. It will be weeks before I decide to act.
What you need to understand about cancer is that it can’t be fully understood.
Cells in our bodies are dividing every day – skin, hair, nails and so on. Occasionally they go rogue and divide like wildfire, creating tumors, some benign, others malignant. Those malignant tumors are cancer. Scientists have determined that genetics and environment influence those imperfect divisions, but much is still unknown.
For example: How does a perfectly healthy 32-year-old who weight lifts, eats his oatmeal and generally has a stress-free outlook get cancer?
Cancer is a thief in the night who steals the one possession that always grounded you — the good health you took for granted. I write knowing that that story is Jay’s, not mine, to tell.
Yet ever since Jay had cancer in 2018, it’s colored my outlook. Life is short and cancer is a constant reminder of its brevity. There is always one more test, one more scan for recurrence lurking around the corner, determining our future.
Jay’s evaded death before, so COVID-19 scares us more than your average Americans. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe not.
Cancer is a thief.
One Sunday night in August, I flip open my laptop, determined to book us that beach house. While Jack sleeps and Jay plays video games in the basement, I meticulously search VRBO for rentals in South Haven, eventually settling on one with a pretty blue kitchen, three beds and two bathrooms, a cozy couch and elegant, arched doorways. It’s open the weekend after Labor Day, a time when the beach won’t be crowded. I consult no one and press “Book Now,” grinning at my secret.
Etching the dates for our long weekend into my otherwise empty planner, I pause, trying to recall when Jay’s next CT scan happens. I don’t believe I’ve created a schedule conflict, but I’ll need to check with him. I finish the entry, planting a seed of hope.
The next morning, I share the news with Jay. To my surprise, he OKs the trip, which lands just after his scan but right before he’ll receive test results. My stomach in knots, I ask if he wants to reschedule. He waves me off.
We invite Jay’s parents to join us. We decide that we’ll all quarantine the week leading up to the trip so everyone feels safe and comfortable.
A month later, I stuff beach towels and sunscreen in my suitcase, flanked by Jack, who bounces back and forth pleading, “Is it vacation? Is it vacation? I want to see Nana and Papa!” He hasn’t seen Jay’s parents since Christmas. I smile wearily and say, “Soon, buddy, soon!”
Vacation cannot come soon enough.
The house is just like its pictures, with the blue kitchen, cozy couch and arched doorways.
Seeing my mother-in-law Jane reunited with Jack, I blink back tears. “Nana!” he cries again and again, beaming and running to her. Jay and his father bend their heads toward each other, deep in conversation. I order pizza and treat the adults to a serving of my homemade sangria. That night, I go to bed full and happy. I don’t think of cancer at all.
The next day, we flock to the beach after breakfast. It’s breezier than I’d hoped, but the sun soars high and clear in the cloud-speckled sky, warming our shoulders.
Once our feet hit the sand, Jack rockets toward the water.
Jane and I keep watch, scanning the blue-gray waves as they roll in and out, sweeping the sand smooth repeatedly. As Jack frolics, I remark to Jane, “There’s something healing about the water.” She nods vigorously. To our right, Jay lounges on a beach towel, soaking up sunshine. I feel the tightness in my chest loosen, and wonder if he feels the same.
After lunch, we trek to a beach called Pilgrim’s Haven. Stones of all shapes and sizes blanket the shore and I realize we’ve unwittingly hit a home run with Jack — he’s currently obsessed with rocks and gemstones. Jack scampers off, picking through them one by one.
Jay and his father stand at the water’s edge, skipping stones. I imagine them tossing our worries into Lake Michigan, waves swallowing them whole. Jay sets up a treasure hunt for Jack, burying in the sand a small wooden chest filled with toy gemstones I bought for this occasion. I snap photos as they laugh and dig and think this is the happiest I’ve seen Jay all summer.
The treasure found, I settle into our camp chair near the water’s edge. I set my eyes on the horizon, where sky blurs into lake, and listen to the lapping tide. Rain clouds gather in the distance, but for the moment, all is calm.
On our last full day in South Haven, I sleep in until 9:30 a.m. I wake with a start, realizing the whole family’s risen before me, likely minding not to wake me. I read The Book of Longings alone at the table while munching granola and sipping coffee. The morning stretches out, still and quiet. I’ve been handed the precious gift for which I’d been longing.
Plotting out our day, I see the forecast calls for steady showers, but it looks like there’s an opening from now until lunchtime. If we want to enjoy the beach, we must act quickly, so we grab towels and speed to another spot my father-in-law’s discovered.
Under a gray sky, Jack scales sand dunes topped with prairie grass and ubiquitous yellow flowers that attract a smattering of Monarch butterflies. He weaves up and down the shoreline, avoiding other beach-goers. He’s edging closer and closer to the South Haven lighthouse and farther from where Jay and his parents have congregated. I sprint after Jack in my trusty powder blue Nikes, amazed at his fleetness.
Running on the beach, I am struck by how fast it’s gone, this vacation, this year, and though Anxiety lingers like the approaching storm, I want to seize this rising Joy and let it carry me to Chicago.
From the middle of a sand dune, Jack turns to me and asks, “Where’s Daddy?” I point toward the other end of the beach and he’s gone again, zipping toward his father. I bound toward them, shoes barely touching sand.
What answers wait for us on the other side of vacation? Will they ever find a cure? What questions will remain unanswered?
Seagulls circle overhead and a spritz of tide baptizes my ankles. If the rain comes now, I’ll run right through it. Life is brief and storms are to be expected. It’s also undeniably dazzling, this joyous race toward home.
Sand and water extend for miles out ahead of us. I think, in all of 2020, I’ve never felt so free.