I am a person who talks to strangers about their feelings. It started because I talked on the internet about my feelings, in a blog that chronicled my husband’s cancer experience. And then I wrote a book about that. And now I have a podcast about it.
All these things mean that my inbox and timeline are often filled with people who want advice. Not because I’m a certified therapist, but because I play one on the internet. I’m happy to talk to strangers about life and love and whatever third thing that starts with L…lizards?? Because our feelings are important and we are all weird, insecure little creatures. And because it beats sitting around obsessing over my own feelings.
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So I’m taking your questions about life, love, and lizards. Starting with this one, which is kind of a doozy.
I got a message from a 22-year-old who was planning to marry her boyfriend, who she’d been dating for ages. Her boyfriend has a brain tumor. A cancerous one, that can’t be fully removed. And suddenly, the parents who were so excited to have a new son don’t want her hitching her wagon to a star that is going to burn out too soon. They assumed that the diagnosis meant that any wedding plans were off. Their 22-year-old daughter certainly didn’t intend to marry a man with brain cancer, did she? Well, uh, she did, actually. Her parents weren’t movie villains, forbidding her to marry her beloved, but they didn’t understand why she still planned to say “I do.” It seemed crazy to them, which made it seem crazy to her.
“You married a man with a brain tumor,” she wrote me. “Do you regret it? Would you do it again? Am I CRAZY for wanting to marry him still? Help me.”
The short answer is: I did. Not for a moment. A million times, yes. You’re not crazy. And, I can try.
The long answer is this:
I don’t for a moment regret marrying Aaron. I wouldn’t trade the three years we had together for any other healthy, still-alive man I could have married. I wouldn’t trade them for anything except an impossible imaginary future where Aaron didn’t get brain cancer and we lived to be in our 80s and then died in our sleep, holding hands like a pair of otters.
I married Aaron just after his brain surgery to remove a tumor that turned out to be really, really bad brain cancer. But marrying him wasn’t really a choice.
I knew when I met Aaron that I had found something that they write books and songs about. On our first date, we talked about all the things you’re supposed to avoid on a first date: marriage, kids, the mistakes our own parents had made. Aaron had staked his claim as the stay-at-home parent for our imaginary children before dessert even arrived. I knew before his tumor was discovered that we would be married, and I knew the moment the doctor told us he had brain cancer that there was no way in hell I would be anywhere but at his side for this.
Yes, it was hard to watch the man I married get sicker and die. But would slinking away from him to let him do it on his own have spared either of us any suffering?
“Are you sure?” people very, very close to us asked. “This will get so hard.”
I was sure. I was sure on our first date, and I was sure the day we found his brain tumor and the day we were married and the day that he died. The choice they were imagining I had was no choice at all. Yes, it was hard to watch the man I married get sicker and die. But would slinking away from him to let him do it on his own have spared either of us any suffering?
I can’t tell you who to marry. And even though you’re 22 and possibly still on their health insurance…NEITHER CAN YOUR PARENTS. Or your friends. Or your hair stylist (although of all the choices listed above, they are probably the best option you have for solid advice).
This is your life. Yes, that is something you could read on a fake hand-painted sign you found at TJ Maxx but dammit, sometimes those signs are right.
This is YOUR life, and a thing about your life is that you are going to die.
That’s unfortunately true for all of us, even those without brain tumors, because science isn’t a science and even if you never smoke a single cigarette, you can still get lung cancer. You can do yoga every day and still have a heart attack. You can be a wonderful person and still get hit by a car. You’re for sure gonna die and there’s nothing you can do about that. Is that scary? Sometimes. I personally don’t want to be eaten by a bear and so I do not go camping. But the thing that should scare you more than dying is living a life someone else picks for you.
So your parents don’t think you should marry a guy with a brain tumor. Well, they’re not marrying him. You are. And let me be clear, it will be like any of your friends’ marriages: You will still watch Netflix and get irritated when he doesn’t unload the dishwasher properly. It will also be unlike any of your friends’ marriages (unless we are friends). You will feel the chemo blaze through his body at night. You will watch an incurable disease eat him alive. You will live every vow you take, and it will be more sickness than health and death will most certainly part you, probably sooner than later.
That is what you sign up for when you marry a man with a cancerous brain tumor. It is hard. Life is, no matter what. Love is, no matter what.
There is no choice that will help you avoid heartache or suffering or loss, in some measure.
You are 22 chronologically, but situations like this have a way of aging us, of packing the wisdom of many more decades into us very quickly. You are certainly free to walk away, to find someone with no obvious health defects to build a life with. And you can hope nothing happens to either of you, but you just as certainly cannot guarantee it.
You cannot bubble wrap and protect your heart from life, and why should you? It is meant to be used, and sometimes broken. Use it up, wear it out, leave nothing left undone for or unsaid to the people you love. Let it get banged up and busted if it needs to. That’s what your heart is there for.
P.S. I am an ordained wedding officiant and am available most days because I don’t have a social life.
If you have a question you would like Nora to address, email email@example.com.