Oct/Nov 2019 Nonfiction

Significant Other

by Joe Bardin

Image courtesy of The British Library photostream

Perhaps like the Bahamians said to have been unable to see Columbus's ships approaching though they were in plain sight, we just didn't have a reference point for Bernie being anything other than healthy. When the physician's assistant who'd done Bernie's annual mammogram suggested a follow up MRI, just in case, her inclination to blow it off was fine with me. She was never sick, except for the occasional flu and allergies in the spring and fall. But, following up by phone, the PA was almost rude in his insistence, and Jim, our housemate and kitchen shaman, encouraged her to take his advice and get the MRI.

It seemed that only after the results came back positive and a biopsy was ordered were we suddenly able to plainly feel an almost metallically hard disc toward the top of her right breast, like a quarter coin under the skin, and we wondered how we'd possibly missed it. But there was still the biopsy, and the certainty that it would come back benign. When it tested malignant, the enemy finally came into full view. The tumor, with its elliptical shape and dangling appendages, looked like a crab, Cancer, a connection I'd never made before, though it's my astrological sign.

An oncologist prescribed chemotherapy to shrink the tumor and then surgery to remove it, by lumpectomy or mastectomy if necessary, then more chemo to make sure. She spoke in such stanch, definitive terms, one would have thought no reasonable alternative existed. The prognosis was good, not great: the hardship and potential side effects of chemo, and perhaps losing Bernie's breast, for a 75 percent chance, or something to that effect.

Bernie liked her and, being an action person, wanted to move ahead right away. I supported Bernie, uncertain how to parse the information, still somewhat stunned by the diagnosis. Cancer tends to front-load bad news—what good news is to be had only comes trickling in over time. Digesting the fact of having cancer was difficult enough without having to assess treatment paths.

Jim wanted to talk to more doctors, so Bernie met with a naturopathic oncologist who proposed a completely different approach, starting with surgery to remove the tumor, followed by weekly IVs of strong nutrients to strengthen her immune response. No chemo, which she said would compromise the immune strength needed to fight the cancer. And an excellent prognosis. The naturopath showed documentation that 93% of patients who followed all her protocols, including diet, went into remission.

Stacking this against the conventional MD's approach, it was impossible to square the two. For one, chemo was medicine, for the other, poison. I was used to the contradicting inputs about diet—low carb vs limited protein vs high fiber vs good fats vs whatever. But for a life-threatening condition like breast cancer, the subject of intense study for decades across a massive sample size of millions, shouldn't the science have shown through by now, one way or the other?

Bernie eventually opted for the naturopathic cancer treatment. She had already quit sugar months earlier, much to the naturopath's approval, who had patients dying of cancer who wouldn't stop, though their tumors feasted on it. The surgeon thought she could remove just the tumor, a lumpectomy, and she turned out to be right, the first good news since the diagnosis.

Bernie went three times a week for IVs at the naturopathic cancer center. The night before, she laid out her panties and bra, with a pair of shoes beside a coiled belt—the bones of her outfit. Bernie's a fashion plate with whom it's not a day out if some woman along the way does not compliment her on some aspect of her appearance, or gay man for that matter. (Straight men, apparently, don't see, don't say, or both.)

The clinic staff and patients took to her immediately. But along with the treatment came the culture of cancer and its fearful lore. Patients sat in a large room in a circle of recliners, taking their IVs. Some were dangerously, even terminally ill, others were in recovery. They told stories—how cancer appears out of seemingly nothing, that its cells are immortal, how it can "jump" from one organ to another, from one breast to another—reducing us all to peasant folk fearing the beast beyond the wall, and within it.

I felt Bernie's fear at night unsettling the darkness. Sometimes she mumbled in her sleep, consonant sounds sticking in her throat, trying to get a word out. Other times I'd find her lying awake in silence, her anxiety pulling me right out of sleep.

Five years earlier, Bernie had seen me through a ruptured disk, which had led to a life threatening staph infection in my spine and a long, pain-filled recovery. She had told me all along I was going to come through, better than ever, not just survive, but experience something new in it all, and I did—an emotional recalibration, a vulnerability that in many ways unlocked me.

Now, in the dark, I talked to Bernie about her bright future, that this disease wasn't the end of her but the beginning of a new phase, that personalities need to exfoliate as well as skin, and sometimes only drastic disturbances propel us into the new. She believed me but could only maintain the thought so long before the water table of fear rose again; we were holding back a flood.

Bernie eventually traced this cancer to the form of hormone replacement she'd been taking, Estradiol, considered carcinogenic by some. I would associate it with the drain on her from the slow, grievous decline of the father of her kids, with whom she'd shared a strong bond, who'd lived out his last years with us, and had died just months before. But beyond this immediate causation loomed an even more intimidating agent—age.

Despite the Facebook-ready declarations to the contrary, age is hardly "just a number." It's not just anything. It's a dress code and a mind map, an internal compass and an external control communicated in the eyes and opinions of others. Age is the ultimate discriminator, dividing us all into camps—bias by number. To slip this straightjacket, to refuse its governance over my heart, has been to sense a vast wide-open, beyond our cramped, hectic hive of dying.

What do I even call Bernie? Girlfriend sounds so provisional, like we're going to see how prom turns out. Companion suggests at least one of us ought to have four legs. Life partner seems more apt for an insurance form than real conversation. Bernie says, "I'm just Bernie." I'll say she's my deeply significant other.

When we first came together almost 20 years ago, some thought I was Bernie's mid-life crisis, or even a mental breakdown. Others, who didn't know her well, reacted as though I had low self-esteem, never mind that it actually takes considerable resolve to follow through on such a course.

A part of me wants to offer, by way of explanation, or at least context, that Bernie is preternaturally youthful, not just in how she looks but in how she is. She has a lightness of being, an air of vulnerability, that is positively girlish, belying the usual accumulation of emotional baggage that tends to burden body language over time. The world bears witness to this each time she is required to offer up her date of birth, only to be met with long second looks as people run the arithmetic in their heads. Bernie does not compute.

I could show commonality: though I am the more serious reader and she the more serious shopper, we both like the Colorado mountains in the summer, movies without superheroes, Mexican food, and eating at the bar rather than being stuck down in a restaurant table. Bernie opened my taste for chili and cayenne peppers, and I enlarged her appetite for exercise, which she used to treat like an unpleasantness to be completed as soon as possible in order to get on to something more enjoyable like shopping.

I could demonstrate compatibility: I love making Bernie laugh. She in turn is a transcendent listener, a listener who can save your life, and I have odd things to say, urgent, inchoate futures that only partly clarify upon speaking, and a sensitivity to not being understood.

I could conjecture that I may have a line of code missing in my brain demarcating the conventional way to do anything, it sometimes seems. I could perhaps even invoke the artist in me to account for my waywardness, but famous examples that come to mind run in exactly the opposite vein, their maleness consuming younger female flesh as if for fuel.

I could also offer that we are dedicated to radical life extension by way of mindful care, extreme optimism, and breakthrough science. In the context of unlimited life spans, our age difference is no big deal. When I'm 1,000 years old, she'll be 1,030, and who will give a damn? But who in our death-anchored world would be swayed by that?

The numbers themselves are tyrannical in the imagination. Add to this the procreation-based bias against women out-aging men in love, and the chasm would take an act of intimacy on the reader's part to cross. Otherwise, Bernie and I will remain merely indistinct caricatures distantly silhouetted on the other side. But let's try.

I was 29 and she was 59 when we came together. One of my earliest memories of our living together is waking up one morning and noticing Bernie out of bed. I spotted her in the living room, doing something I couldn't at first comprehend. She somehow had the thick beveled glass top of the coffee table humped on her arched back, while she centered the wrought iron stand on the rug beneath it. Easily a job for three people.

It was like a nature show in which some creature preforms physics-defying acts, like leaping exponential heights, or lifting many times its own bodyweight. Fascinated, I watched as long as I dared, the glass see-sawing precipitously on her back, before stepping in to assist. Afterward, when I confronted her on doing this without asking for help, she didn't understand why I was making such a fuss. This only made me feel closer to her somehow, included in her domestic exoticism.

Bernie faced withering criticism, being the older perhaps, but, also, being a woman expected to stay in her lane, not least of which by other women. Early on, Bernie would sometimes channel this condemnation at me. I was coming off a marriage of hyperinflationary insecurity, which no amount of promises sincerely tendered as emotional currency could cover, and fighting so fierce it burned love down to ash. So with Bernie, I figured there was nothing holding us together but us, and she could walk if she wanted to. It would have hurt, but I was cured of the crucible of fighting to be felt or arguing to be trusted.

A sliding door separated our bedroom area from the kitchen and Jim's side of the house. If jerked around, if in fact not opened and closed with utmost finesse, this slider would slip off its track and was awkward to fix. The more Bernie wanted to fight, the less I rose to the bait, which only infuriated her more. When she started to slam the door back and forth, I implored her to take it easy. That I could think of hardware at such a time only fed her furor and she gave that door such a tug it popped right off its track, wood dragging on tile. In the process, Bernie somehow gashed her finger open and the blood poured, and we couldn't get it to stop. I had to take her to the emergency room for stitches. That was about the extent of her healthcare challenges until now.

Women of all ages contract breast cancer, but a woman in her 70s, like Bernie, faced more than double the likelihood of breast cancer, compared to a 40-year-old, according to the National Cancer Institute. So though Bernie had never used age to relieve her of responsibility, she now questioned if her authority hadn't been usurped anyway.

And then there's the condemnation of the skin. It's the largest organ in the human body, doing life preserving duty like keeping out deadly microbes and regulating body temperature. Nevertheless, we assess skin on appearance above all. Do declines in dermal elasticity indicate aging, or merely an accumulation of sun exposure? Do wrinkles age us as much as how we feel about them does? For that matter, is the entire enterprise of trying to keep ahold of some semblance of youth a strategy for longevity or a set up for emotional devastation?

Such positive intellectualizing can help, and undoubtedly, at some point, our scientist friends working in the field will come up with a solution for the skin. But in the meantime, we had to make a visceral reckoning with such changes. Fair women suffer time on the skin, and Bernie's Dutch girl features had not gone unmarked. Bernie, who lives everything out loud, spoke of it regularly, sometimes tearfully, in effect mourning a loss. I could not deny seeing what she saw in the mirror, but I could not deny loving her, either.

Still, a part of me was troubled, not just by how she looked to me, or how others saw us, but how she made me look to myself. Bernie, in her own way, was similarly disturbed. Men don't worry nearly as much about how they look for their woman—she is the one most invested with being the adornment.

One morning in bed I caressed her. But when I looked in her eyes I saw only unflinching courage—the courage to be touched without feeling attractive. A wall loomed between us that had not been there before made of self-consciousness and fear. In a way, this was what our detractors had forecast for us all along; that we'd veered down a dead-end road and were careening toward an inevitable wreck. Never mind that many of their relationships hadn't lasted this long, no matter how age appropriate; that "right-aged" couples crack up everywhere, all the time.

We each at times have struggled with the sheer novelty of our position. As if we couldn't possibly be okay without having an index of comparable couples we could flip through in our minds as precedent to back us up. Bernie and I might as well be astronauts rambling on some moon somewhere—if anyone else is out here with us, we don't know about it. But what does anyone really know about intimacy anyway?

Of all the dubious assumptions in life, assumptions about intimacy are probably the most ill-founded, being based as they inevitably are on those most mystifying of people, our parents. Even when their dysfunctions are sufficiently apparent to impress us not to repeat them, the impression tends to replay anyway. And when we are fool enough to think they got it right, we're usually really in for it.

What is intimacy? We use it as a euphemism for sex when the two are just as often like Clark Kent and Superman—not in the same room at the same time. (But what can we expect from a culture that still can't hear how inane it is to allude to fucking as "sleeping with"?)

Marriage is often equated with intimacy, but it can just as easily be antithetical, as intimacy is free flowing, and marriage is fundamentally fixed. The literal translation of husband and wife in Hebrew, my first language, is master and woman. Doubling up on one or the other, it seems to me, relieves none of the legacy of ownership you may be talking your way into.

Dictionaries cite familiarity as a synonym for intimacy, but does knowing each other make us close? Or is it not knowing, having the capacity to surprise and be surprised, to experience each other anew?

What we think we know about intimacy is our fig leaf, but its strangeness undresses us, baring us to the presence and being of another, and the intensity and sensuality of them not being us. Intimacy is exposure, and experience has taught us to cover up. So couples tend to select for sameness of tribe, age, education, income level, and then to coach, critique, and negotiate away what differences remain. Then, it's the difference of those they cannot compromise that leaves them raw. The reaction against gays, or mixed race couples, or any other kind of coupling considered deviant isn't just bigotry, it's a reaction against the revelation of intimacy, the threat of feeling.

All along, our living has required a certain exertion. Not the "hard work" that self-helpers proudly attribute to relationship building, reducing the vulnerability and electricity of intimacy to some labor of effort and consistency. But because we're swimming against the social current, we can never just float along, existing, but have always had to build the musculature of being beyond normal.

But that morning in bed, intimidated by aging, by cancer, by the intimacy that had brought us together in the first place, in effect, by ourselves, which is what self-consciousness boils down to, it was clear we hadn't gone far enough, and, now, our genders' implacable agendas of vanity and reproduction threatened to separate us.

I was raised in a family of reserve, where emotions only broke through in brief bursts of unhappiness, quickly covered up. Associated with conflict and pain, passion was feared, so we lived without it. For Bernie, passion came as naturally as breath, and I'd learned to breathe with her, and so I breathed now and abandoned myself to her, not as a male to a female, or younger to older, but as an intimate to an intimate, naked to the sensuality of our otherness, overflowing the barriers of her reluctance, and my anxiety, washing away with passion what had seemed so substantial, almost immovable, like so much silt disappearing downstream.

I could say Bernie got better, but there was only one day, after the surgery, when she sat around on the couch watching TV and dozing, woozy from the anesthesia. Beyond that, she barely slowed down, and because she didn't do chemo, was spared those side-effects. She stuck with her IVs and shunning sugar, and Jim came up with other complementary supplements. After a year, an MRI showed no returned growth in her breast, and blood work confirmed what's called "remission." I can't say our life returned to normal; we were less normal than ever, but all the more intimate for it.


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