What I most remember about Columbus, Ohio on the Saturday night of George Zimmerman’s acquittal is the heat. Though it was only mid-summer, a late-summer’s blaze set itself on the city. The kind that sits on top of your skin, hungry and unshakeable. It was the kind of day where everyone sits inside next to an air conditioner, or sweats through an old t-shirt walking the three blocks to the store, like I did, right before a friend texted me “He’s not guilty. He’s free.”
My then-girlfriend, Laura, was back home, visiting her family in the small Ohio town where she was raised. About a month earlier, I managed to fly across the country and back in 24 hours to pick up an engagement ring without her knowing about it (a trick that involved more airport running than I will likely ever have to do again in my life). I spent most of my time on the day of Zimmerman’s acquittal inside of our tiny attic apartment, wrestling with a number of anxieties about putting the ring to its proper use (anxieties that I continued to wrestle with until I finally did the deed early in October of that year, much to the relief of family and friends). I had been invited to a game of hide and seek that night in the park down the street from my house. Some revelry after a day of oppressive heat, some praise at the feet of a cool night. After I returned from the store and processed the text about the verdict, I remember sitting under a blanket in the dark, right up against the loud and rattling window air conditioner, shivering. In debating whether or not I should go out to the park and try to find a release with people I cared deeply for, I considered this idea of a black male running into the night. How we seemed to be consistent only in the art of disappearance. How, even in joy, running into a cool and needed darkness could end in burial. My name on a stone next to the stone with my mother’s name on it. The unused ring, still in a drawer. The woman I hoped to spend my life with, re-learning a life without me in it, and then carrying on, as we all do. I considered my father, forced to convince a nation that mine was a life worth being kept. And I wept, loudly and angrily. I stared at my hands, pushed them into the shadows of our living room, and watched them vanish.
About three weeks before our wedding, Laura and I sat in a car after processing a phone call from her dermatologist.
We don’t know how bad it is, we were told.
And then, there will have to be at least one surgery.
About two weeks before that, Laura went to the doctor to get a toe injury looked at. She had recently gotten back into running, and an odd sore had emerged under her toenail. I shrugged, told her that she just may need better fitting running shoes. Because she once witnessed me eat ice cream six evenings in a row, she smartly opted out of taking my medical advice, and went to an actual doctor. Her toe wasn’t abnormal, they said. But the spots on her shoulder and neck were concerning. With her family health history, we feared skin cancer. So, the phone call we got that day wasn’t entirely surprising. But if nothing else, if I’ve learned anything from Black Death and the people who walk away from it unscathed, it’s that things can be both unsurprising AND exceedingly jarring. The choices were as follows: either reschedule the wedding, or schedule the surgery after the wedding. Frantically, I thought the former would be entirely reasonable, while Laura very calmly selected the latter. After one post-wedding surgery, it was found that the cancer had metastasized, and moved to her lymph nodes, meaning that it jumped from stage one to stage three. A much more dangerous situation, one that potentially required immunotherapy and years of monitoring and recovery, if all of the impacted lymph nodes couldn’t be removed by surgery.
The fragility of everyone we love is frightening. I forget this often. Even after losing so many loved ones, I forget it. I forget it even as I type this, only remembering it as I recall being curled up on a hospital recliner at 3 a.m., anxiously fidgeting with the new band of metal adjusting itself to my ring finger, watching my wife try to sleep through unimaginable pain, a handful of tubes running out of her neck and arms. I remember holding her hand while she slept, watching her thrash uncomfortably. It was hard not to recall her, just weeks earlier, walking towards me through a field filled with all of our family and friends.
A month after the surgeries, after she was released from the James Cancer Hospital and I helped her up the stairs of our tiny, hot apartment, after she once again showed me the proper way to fight, refusing to sprawl on the couch all day (as she was instructed to do) and moving what little she could while I often sulked in our bedroom, afraid, restless, and watching the World Cup, the hospital called us early on a Saturday morning. Laura was declared cancer-free. Every cancerous lymph node had been successfully removed, and the others scanned as clean. In under two months, I committed myself to someone I loved more than I thought was possible, watched them battle an illness that was considered to be extremely life threatening, and then watched it be completely removed. The phone call was casual, matter-of-fact, even. I don’t know why I expected the call to be more celebratory on the hospital’s end, but I somehow did.
Hey. Just wanted to fill you all in. The cancer is gone. Hope you have a good weekend.
Laura has a scar that runs across the front of her neck. Naturally, she doesn’t love it. Poets often try to make romance out of wearing the remains of what does not kill you. Though she would likely be a better one than me if she took it up, my wife is not a poet. While I appreciate the reminder of what came for her body and did not succeed, I more appreciate the body that is still here. The suit I did not have to put on. The life I did not have to abandon right after it started.
I don’t know what to do with all of the world’s burning anymore. Sometimes we start the fire directly, other times we’re unwitting accomplices to it, and then there are times when the smoke rises and dances above our own doorsteps, and we’re just too tired to keep the flames under control. I turn on the TV and people of color are still dying. I read the news and people in Trans communities remain dismissed, remain punchlines until they are dead, and people are still laughing at the bad joke. I talk to the women in my life and hear how they’re treated as a different class of person entirely. I don’t have the luxury to not dismantle the systems that allow for those things, and more. I am impacted by it, in some ways, I’m complicit in it, and it’s hard to sit idle while knowing those things. While being afforded a platform, artistic and otherwise.
When we talk about “the work”, as writers, so many of us mean the actual work of writing. The work on the page, of course. After a year of wrestling with the fragility of my own life, and the life of my closest human love, I realized that “the work” is also the work of living. It is the work of loving others when we can, taking care of ourselves when we can, and knowing not to let the former overwhelm us into forgetting the latter. Those two different types of work are two rivers flowing into the same body of water, for me. I don’t know how to write healthy and productive poems if I’m only doing one side of the work.
The only promise here is that I will wake up tomorrow and be as exhausted by the world as I was today. Sure, I may find a brief reprieve in a panda video (or, in the case of the particular tomorrow at the time of this writing, the new Terrance Hayes book!), but I will still find myself going outside to throw water on whatever flames I can, my arms weakening. I know that they will be there, every day. But even through all of it, something happened at around the end of last year. I started writing poems about being married. About my father, still healthy and living. About the friends I love and miss dearly. About my dog. I realized this urgency to archive the things that are not promised. I need the joy in my life to live outside of my body. I need to see it, to touch it. I need that outside of my body even more than I need the rage, confusion, and sadness on the outside. I know the sadness will always replenish itself. There is no certainty in almost anything else. I don’t know how long I’ll get to hear my wife sing along to pop songs in the car during road trips. I don’t know how much longer I’ll get to talk to my father with him remembering who I am. I don’t know when my dog will be too old to rush towards me with a wagging tail whenever I come back from an especially long trip. I need those things to live in other places. I need to have them outside of me so that I can run into them on the days where I will need to. Surely, each small joy has an expiration date. I have touched the edges of them. I don’t know how to fight against this reality except for to write into these moments with urgency. With fearlessness and hunger.
I recently returned from a college poetry competition. I heard so many brave poems from emerging and talented writers. Poems that thankfully named and celebrated the all-too familiar dead, poems that made me wince and chuckle with how closely they mirrored the experiences I had in my late teens/early 20s, and of course, poems of survival. After one such poem, beginning in sadness and ending in praise, that hit close to home for me, I went up to the poet, shook his hand and told him how glad I was that I came in the room to hear his poem. I told him that I was glad he was writing, and how beautiful it was for me to hear this poem of survival ending in joy. He responded,
They ain’t killed us yet. Gotta celebrate what we can.
And then he ran off, and I almost felt my skin rebuild itself into a new device.
(Note: This was written and edited in collaboration with my wife, Laura. We both feel strongly about collaboration when one partner tells the story of another partner’s trauma/illness/life.)