Jay Michael continues his story about living with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Read his previous posts in "My Choice to Live: Part I" and "My Choice to Live: Part II."
Every so often in life we meet people who move us instantly. You know, the sort of meetings where -- from a first glance and within a few words exchanged -- you know you've had an encounter that will impact you for life. I've had a few of these experiences in my life -- some have led to love or lust and others to the dearest of friendships, and some fall somewhere in between.
Years ago -- about nine, to be exact -- I met a striking young Southern man with a soft and loving energy that immediately attracted me to him; it wasn't physical really, but intensely emotional. We were at a party, so I couldn't seem too interested, but I recall exchanging numbers and soon breaking bread. We learned at our first private encounter of many unbelievable parallels throughout our lives and upbringings, and we bonded in a way uncommon in (gay) life in your early 20s. Our friendship grew extremely fast -- almost too fast, in retrospect -- and a deep sense of love and admiration, in a more platonic sense, quickly ensued. Our lives grew very close and almost boyfriend-like until a few years later, when we made a decision to grow a bit more separately (yet we always shared a very special and unbreakable bond).
As much as our paths have crossed far less in the past years, I was greeted Sunday evening at the hospital by this wonderful friend, who just sat at the end of my bed with one hand on my leg while we both cried, loudly and childishly, for almost 30 minutes. I hadn't really cried since receiving the diagnosis, so this was unexpected, yet such a necessary emotional release. We weren't sure what lead us to tears, but the love was so strong it made me more and more emotional as we cried like big gay babies. I remember saying in between pants, "Giving in and allowing people to take care of me has been the toughest part." He kept saying, "I know, I know, but there are so many people who love and support you -- let them help you."
One evening, after my fist in-patient treatment, I was laying on my sofa dozing when I heard a knock on my door. I was expecting a friend, so I got up from the sofa and began to walk toward the entrance hall of my apartment. Once I got almost to the halfway point between the entrance hall and the front door, I began to feel very faint -- before I could get to the front door to open it, I blacked out. My 210-pound body took a dive for the ground face-first. I remember nothing except hearing someone slamming at the door; my friend heard the fall and was knocking at the door and yelling my name. A few minutes after, I finally heard the slamming and woke up in a pool of blood gushing from my mouth. I had badly cut open my front lip, chipped and cracked off my front tooth and slashed open a part of my chin -- but more than anything else, I realized at that moment I couldn't be left alone and that I needed help. Thankfully, my wonderful friend on the other side of the door was a doctor who immediately took loving care of me. The physical damage was painful and uncomfortable, but the real pain was in the reality of that fact that I wasn't capable of taking care of myself anymore. Just a few weeks earlier, I could have taken a run at the drop of a hat and now I could hardly walk to my front door without wiping out.
It was at the moment that I realized that it was OK to ask for help, because I had no other choice. It was OK to let go and ask selfishly of those who love me most -- I have given freely of myself for as long as I can remember but this is my time to take -- and as much as that may have felt unnatural, it also felt right, for the first time ever.
So that next morning I wrote an email to my dearest friends, most from as far back as childhood and some from adult life, detailing the nasty fall and asking for each of them to consider taking turns "Jaysitting" me during my evenings at home alone out-patient. For most of my life, I have found immense joy in giving, but asking for help and taking has always made me feel uneasy, so this email struck more than one major cord with me. It made me realize that I not only needed to get over my shyness of taking from others but, more than that, I needed to accept the fact that I needed help and I wasn't going to get through these intense treatments without accepting the unwavering love and support from those closest to me.
I remember a few tears falling down my face as I sent the email, but within a few days one of my oldest and dearest friends has a "Jaysitting" spreadsheet created and nights through October were committed to by friends and family who do nothing less than come to my home at night and keep me company, wash a few dishes or throw in a load, eat a meal with me, share old stories, watch some questionable TV and show me a type of love that I am fairly certain I never really knew existed in my life prior to cancer. I have always felt loved, but nothing has touched my heart and soul as deeply as the love and dedication shown by so many who have not only given up their nights and weekends for me, but have so freely and so selflessly given to me without expectation. I have been a "giver" my entire life, but at a time when I have very little of myself to give, accepting and "taking" has felt freeing and truly unmeasurably humbling. I have never felt so overwhelmed and, frankly, almost overtaken, by love in my life.
I have always lived life feeling that everyone was either built as a giver or as a taker. A "giver" finds real joy in giving of himself and a "taker" finds joy in sitting back and taking from those willing to give. I've always said I wanted to find a lover who was a giver, yet I always found myself most attracted to takers. I enjoyed giving and they enjoyed taking, but there was always a sort of loss of balance in that. Eventually, one feels like he gives too much and the other -- well the other just takes and takes until the giver says "Buh-bye," or decides to dedicate his life to giving emotionally and physically to someone who truly cannot reciprocate -- and that's not me. That's how I had always seen it until getting sick, when I realized that it isn't nearly that black-and-white.
I remember as a child dreading the gift-opening sessions at the end of each of my birthday parties. Don't get me wrong, I loved the cake and all the playing, but something always came over me the moment it was time to sit around and open gifts. I just couldn't handle that sort of attention -- maybe I felt unworthy, who knew? Perhaps, more than anything, the real secret was I didn't like the lack of control in receiving, while 'giving' kept me in the driver's seat? As much as I would love to act like giving was my selfless and saint-like way of being, truth be told, it gave me control and, until getting cancer, I would never have realized it. I suppose putting me in a place where I had no choice but to take and accept help from those around me taught me that in life we must learn to take as freely as we give. In fact, learning to truly accept the love and support around me may be the toughest yet most undeniably fruitful blessing of my stage 4 cancer battle yet.
If there is one thing I have learned more than anything from cancer, it is how to graciously accept the unbelievable amount of love and kindness that has overtaken me from all directions. Of course, my dear friends and family have been beyond remarkable, but what has really taken me aback has been the outpouring of love and emotion from people I knew only in passing or those whom I had not known at all. From hundreds and hundreds of beautifully written, heartfelt emails and letters sent to my office, to umpteen gifts -- from the readings of Deepak Chopra and the like to the Kim Kardashian book of selfies (a priceless indulgence only acceptable as an anonymous gift) and everything in between. People have graciously continued to shower me with such love and kindness that I frankly have had no choice but to sit back and learn how to accept and, more than anything else, relinquish control. From all the years of giving -- in vain or not -- today I find myself the recipient of the most valuable gift of all: the gift of unprecedented love and light, at a time when I need it more than ever.
Images in this post: Melissa Salvatore, a Fulbright Scholar and photographer, documents the intimate experience of Jay Michael's stage 4 cancer. It is important to her to keep the documentation as raw as possible by avoiding any retouching and keeping each session throughout the series extremely quick, without much direction. By working within the same environment, the focus will be on the breakdown of the cancer and the rebuilding of Jay Michael as he fights this disease.