Permission To Feel

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I was diagnosed during one of those rare, rainy Southern California Octobers. In the fog of my shock and the chemo, physical therapy was just another box to check. I didn’t do the research like I typically would have. I didn’t try to find the PT whose education and experience were the perfect fit for my new, complex needs. I simply went into the clinic around the corner from my apartment, next to the Subway where I ate lunch, and registered as a patient.

He was a stranger who quickly became a friend. During our twice-weekly sessions, he taught me lessons I hadn’t even known I needed to learn. As I agonized through nerve glides and dorsiflexion exercises, he offered me the opportunity to tell my story to another human and feel fully seen and heard for the first time.

“I’m scared,” I told him.

“It’s okay to feel however you feel,” he said.

Simple. Obvious, even. And yet, that permission flooded me with relief.

It allowed me to take my first, tentative steps toward processing the anger, sadness, and despair that engulfed me after I learned a tumor had slowly been creating a spidery web of destruction in my brain — threatening to leave me, at 27, without the ability to walk, to see, to think, to be.

As I began to adjust to my new reality, I learned his life was in upheaval, too. He’d gotten married young, swept up in the orderly procession: college, career, a ring, the big wedding. “She wanted that fairy-tale moment,” he told me. “Once the spectacle was over, she was depressed. I knew our marriage was over then, too.”

We didn’t know each other well enough to care about holding back the ugly, messy details. We just talked, without filters or judgment. And we found ourselves laughing uproariously: at my ungraceful attempts to walk a straight line, at the disastrous Thanksgiving meal he prepared for out-of-town guests, at the absurdity of our situations.

By February, I realized he was my best friend. “I need to discharge you into the care of another therapist,” he said.

A few weeks later, we met in the parking lot of a Coffee Bean on Santa Monica Boulevard. We sat in Pippa, his white Mini Cooper, and talked about what would come next. Would anything?

It broke my heart when we decided to hunker down separately and put our lives back together. But there was much to do.

I extricated myself from a relationship that had long been on life-support and opened myself up to the education only illness makes possible. I attended support groups, workshops where I learned to allow fear and joy to coexist at the same time, and therapy with a wonderful social worker who helped me redraw the boundaries of my life. Alone and authentically myself in ways I’d never been before, I learned that pain can be insidious and bone-deep; and, also, the grace and peace and strength that come from allowing others to help, to nestle in close and just be there.

I kept his words in my heart: “It’s okay to feel however you feel.”

He, meanwhile, tried to administer CPR to his dying marriage and failed. He found a therapist, too, and learned to place himself in the driver’s seat of his life. And then he chose, carefully and deliberately, to include me in that life.

It was August when he called.

“I know what a good life means to me now,” he said, “and I’m ready to live one with you.”

We eschewed tradition and did things out of order. In that giddy first year, we spent Christmas with each other’s families and giggled like school kids. By year two, I was determined he should be firmly settled into life before he had to live without me, so we bought our first home, in South L.A. In year three, we married quietly at the Beverly Hills Courthouse. We threw a big party in year four, where those we love most danced to bluegrass music and helped us celebrate the beauty born from darkness.

“Right now, the moment we are living involves learning the word “terminal.” Loving him has been easy, like it was the one thing I was meant to do.”

The studies told us we’d have many good years: 15, maybe more. But we haven’t lived like we had years; we’ve lived in the moments. Camping in Ojai. Rambling around farmers markets. Watching the sun reflecting off the skyline of the adopted city we hold so dear. Filling our home with with friends and layers of conversation and laughter.

It’s been five years since he asked me to share this life and nearly two since the courthouse. Right now, the moment we are living involves learning the word “terminal.” Loving him has been easy, like it was the one thing I was meant to do. “The universe works in strange and wondrous ways,” I wrote in my wedding vows. “Your spirit came peeking in through a crevice in my soul and — somehow — before I even knew it was there, threw the doors wide open and let the light come rushing in. Your spirit saw mine and, magically, let me see it too. This gift of sight, of recognition, of acceptance, of love, is the best gift I’ve ever been given. It leaves me awestruck, breathless, and humble. And it makes me want to be the best version of myself, the version deserving of your selflessness, your kindness, and your devotion.”

The day we found out I had just a few months left to live, we curled up together on the couch. “I hope our time together has brought net joy to your life,” I sobbed. He held my face in his hands as the tears streamed down our cheeks. “When I met you I didn’t know who I was,” he said, “so it would have been impossible for someone to love me for me. You’ve helped me come alive, you’ve loved me for me, and you’ve brought me more joy than I could ever have imagined possible.”

He was speaking straight from the heart. So was I. That was our gift to each other.

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