It’s December 17, 2009, and I’m 20 years old. I’m sitting on the paper-covered examination table in my oncologist’s office. My mom is sitting across from me on an unattractive fabric chair next to the doctor’s desk, taking notes. She’s the one who drove me from our house in New Jersey to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on the Upper East Side, like she’s done for the past nine months when this whole ordeal started. I’m here to get the results from a PET scan to see if the 12 rounds of chemotherapy have worked. Earlier scans showed the drugs were effective in shrinking the tumor — but I’m still nervous. Any tiny speck on the scan could bring my life crashing back down, and I’ve learned to stop expecting good news. The door handle is turning and my doctor is walking into the room. “You’re clean,” he says before the door has even shut behind him, sparing me agony. Like ripping off the world’s biggest Band-Aid. “You’re in remission,” he says. I already know this. But I pinch the side of my thigh to stop from crying.
I’m 21 years old and hugging my family at the security gate in the Newark airport. I’m about to leave for a four-month-long study abroad program in London, where I know nobody except the one friend who dragged me to sign up in the first place. I haven’t flown on a plane since I was 8 years old. I have never left the country. I am terrified to do both. I am experiencing that cold, shaky calm that happens after extended periods of anxiety as I turn the corner and watch my family disappear. I don’t know the people I will be living with once I get to London. I don’t know what job I’ll have. I don’t even know how I will get from the airport to my dorm. But I know I have no choice but to go through with this. There are things that make me anxious that are actually bad, and there are things that make me anxious that are actually good. I’m forcing myself to learn the difference.
I’m driving south on a highway in northern Washington in my boyfriend’s Toyota Camry. My boyfriend is in the passenger seat, and our friend Jordan is strumming a ukulele in the back. I’ve pressured them both to take a road trip across the country and back again to avoid the fact I haven’t found a job since graduating college almost six months ago. My bank account is dwindling, and I have no idea what I’m going to do for work in “the real world.” I feel like a zoo animal that someone set free, instinct-less and terrified. Great green pines blur past the window when suddenly there’s a break in the forest to our right. The Pacific Ocean. I pull off the road so we can touch it for the first time in our lives and on the radio — I will never forget this — “Gangnam Style” is playing. I am struck by how much the Pacific reminds me of the Atlantic, and I wonder why we give them different names when it’s really the same body of water.
Manhattan is gleaming in front of me and the East River is churning below. I’m biking over the Queensboro Bridge to my job — a real job that gives me business cards that say “staff writer” on them. Logically I know that biking is more dangerous than taking the subway, but biking makes me feel free and the subway makes me feel like I am riding in a coffin. I am invigorated by the rush of traffic to my left and the cool, crisp air all around me. To my right, like a spacecraft hovering, a red tramcar is suspended above the river. The last time I saw this tram was from the roof deck at Sloan Kettering. A fellow patient, who, like me, was waiting to be called for treatment, pointed to it in the distance and asked, “What is that?” My mother, whose nerves had been shot to hell over the last year thanks to yours truly, said, “Never point to the sky and say ‘What is that?’ in New York. It’s the 59th Street tram.” I haven’t thought about that tram since that day.
I am experiencing the kind of anxiety that takes over my entire body and settles in my stomach. I run for cover as aunts, coworkers, and college friends grab my arm to congratulate me, and I am smiling, thanking them, but still running. Writing a book was my lifelong dream, but promoting it is my absolute nightmare. I hate public speaking. I am nauseous and sweating through my shirt. My agent appears in front of me to tell me we’re about to start the program. This is the moment I’ve dreaded since I signed the book contract over two years ago, and now I am in it. My body’s fight-or-flight response is begging me to fly, but I find my seat onstage and cement myself to the chair. I try not to look at the crowd, hoping this will trick me into thinking that I’m having a conversation with the interviewer seated next to me, that there isn’t a room full of people listening in. Finally I get the courage to look up, and I see two friends in the back who have traveled a combined 4,000 miles to be here, one from Boston, the other from London. They both flash cheesy smiles, and it doesn’t make me any less nervous but it does make my eyes well up with pride.
I’m sitting on a surfboard, bobbing up and down in the waves at Rockaway Beach in the middle of a six-week unpaid leave from work that I’ve taken to check in with myself. I’m feeling the need to change my life, even if it means leaving the job I love and the city that is home. So I’ve come to Rockaway to think about it. I’m new at surfing, which is why I’ve chosen to come on a relatively flat day. But a few minutes after getting in the water, a teenager paddles out with his younger sister. Their presence instantly annoys me. As a beginner, I am constantly worried I will break some unspoken code of etiquette, so I find myself doing more sitting on my board than actual surfing when others are nearby. Eventually I get over it and go for a wave. I miss it and paddle back in quiet shame. “You almost had that,” says the teen. “You just have to paddle a little harder.” His name is Warren, I learn, and he’s originally from Queens. He coaches me into the next wave and I manage to paddle into it. When I get back to Warren, he’s just as excited as I am. There’s no reason this teen and I would ever cross paths in our daily lives, but the ocean allows for that kind of magic. “Look,” says Warren, pointing behind me. I turn. A pod of dolphins is cresting just a few feet away.
My entire family is crowded around a hospital bed, but this time I’m not the one in it. My sister is. In her lap lies a flushed, writhing ball of flesh with no name. Yesterday, this tiny thing was inside her, only inches away from where he rests now, but the journey he took to get from there to here is, in my mind, impossible. He is so fresh he looks like a wound, all shiny and red. Suddenly my sister is a mother, and this creature is my family — the newest member in over 23 years. And then it’s time to go. And the weirdest part of it all is that we leave without them. They — my sister, her husband, and the ball — are a family now, budded off from ours. As we emerge from the building, our eyes adjust from the fluorescent overhead lighting to a bright autumn sun, and it occurs to me how hard it is to leave a hospital without feeling like things are different than when you walked in.
We’re standing inside a little lilac room at the New York City Marriage Bureau. I’m in a white dress, and my boyfriend is across from me in a suit he bought a week ago. We’ve been dating since high school, which means we were together when I was diagnosed, when I lived abroad, when I became this person. In our 13 years together, we’ve amassed a large number of people invested in our relationship — so we’ve paradoxically decided to have a 20-person wedding. Since having cancer, I’ve felt a bottomless well of emotion, and pretty much anything can make me cry. Part of me hopes that having fewer people there will make the ceremony less intense. The officiant asks us if we promise to love, honor, and cherish each other as long as we both shall live, and we do. He never asks if we will stay together in sickness and in health, but I already know the answer to that. I keep it together until he pronounces us husband and wife — then I feel my mouth contorting, and I am crying, burying my face in my new husband’s new suit collar. I am glad so few people are there to witness this embarrassing display, but I am most glad I am there to witness it.
I’m lying on my back beneath a 2 and a half ton van in a retired man’s garage somewhere in suburban Delaware. I’m 29 years old and buying my first car: a 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon. The van is four years older than me, which means when I was born it was already on the road, living with another family and slowly making its way to me. The owner has me help him repair a leak in the transmission so the van will be road-ready when my husband and I use it to move from New York to California. We have no idea how long we will be living out of the van during our circuitous move west. A month? Six months? A year? We are both leaving our jobs in New York, and we have no work set up in California. So there’s no real rush to be anywhere. The man is patient with me. He lets me remove bolts and swap out parts. He tells me I will need to know this stuff because the van will definitely break down on our journey. It’s not a question of if, he says, but when. This should freak me out, but it doesn’t. It’s exactly the kind of chaos I have been craving.
It’s December 17, 2019, and I’m 30 years old. For the past 10 years, I’ve celebrated this date as a way to pause and reflect on my life: what’s changed, what’s the same, what’s worse, what’s better. It’s usually a day I look forward to, so I am angry when I find myself fighting with my husband over money. It’s not a real fight — we’re both just stressed out from the stark transition of living in a van to living in an apartment without the jobs to pay for it — but still I resent that it’s happening on a day that means so much to me. Then, like a godsend, a dear friend Venmos me a few bucks in honor of the anniversary, which will allow my husband and I to have a nice dinner without worrying about finances. This isn’t how I expected my life to look 10 years out: broke, stressed, and relying on friends for help. But as we walk to the restaurant, I realize that no matter how hard life feels right now, I’ve never come close to feeling as scared or as sad or as angry as I was sitting on that paper-covered table 10 years ago. And that’s more than enough. ●
Erin Chack is the author of This Is Really Happening. She lives in Los Angeles.