Intimacy. Finally…there it was… the real victim of my cancer treatment. The honest-to-goodness casualty of the brutal side-effects inflicted by the cancer drugs that were saving my life but consequently destroying anything and everything else in their path. My confidence took a hit when my body started to fall apart and the strong, assertive, accomplished young woman in the mirror turned into someone I didn’t know and didn’t want to see. She was pale and weathered…with a chubby face and exhausted eyes, no hair or eyebrows, no breasts, no conviction. But I certainly didn’t want to pity her, um, me. And didn’t want others to pity her either. I let the disconnect between the memory of who I once was to the reflection I saw in the mirror seep into every corner of spirit and consciousness.
Unknowingly, I had built a tall invisible fortress around myself, surrounded by deep moats and fiery dragons and it was impossible to let anyone in…particularly my closest and dearest. Them, especially, I wanted to protect from the actual horrors that were sprinting through my psyche and unleashing their poisons throughout my body. It was during the darkest moments of terror…when I feared for my life and despaired over the wreckage that would be left in the aftermath of my death…that those walls went up higher and the intimacy and comfort, that I likely needed, was shut off from the world and most tragically from my family.
So, when my husband suggested a romantic getaway to Florida after my chemotherapy and double mastectomy, I was somewhat surprised but mostly horrified or tortured over who would join him on the trip…the woman he married or the fragmented woman that looked back at me from the mirror every day. Somehow baldness, chemo fatigue and an amputated, scarred-up chest did not equate to an amorous vacation in my mind.
Finally, my mother convinced me that fresh air and new surroundings might do me some good, and so I consented to go. In preparation, I forced myself to shop for pretty lingerie, luxurious scents and make-up that would brighten my grayish skin tone. I convinced myself that this could be a lovely getaway in spite of my bloated face, black toe nails, brittle teeth and crippled self-confidence. Even though it was mostly out of my control, I was ashamed of my appearance. I was only 32 years old but, in fact, I felt twice my age and looked like a sick, frail woman who was playing dress-up. Which I was. The last thing I was in the mood for was trying to be ravishing, desirable or, ahem, sexy.
So I did the next best thing. I decided to “fake it ‘til I make it.” I packed all of the lovely lacey nighties, doused myself in Issey Miyaki perfume, applied some pink lip-gloss and put on my cutest wig and the bravest face I could muster before boarding the flight. It was an exhausting feat but I was hoping to dazzle (or maybe just even charm) my still-somewhat-new and very handsome husband with the best version of myself I could come up with. One that he hadn’t seen in over six months…the one I no longer saw in the mirror.
And guess what! It worked. We spent the days holding hands during long quiet walks on the beach, giggling and blowing bubbles in the sudsy bathtub, giving each other foot rubs on the balcony that overlooked a grove of palm trees, and chatting intimately during dreamy dinners underneath moonlit skies. The weather was glorious and the air smelled like freshly cut flowers dancing in the salty breeze from the ocean.
Everything seemed to wake up within me…slowly and then all at once.
My skin began to tingle in the morning sunshine. My body seemed to become more coordinated as I began to take faster, bolder strides. My mood was lighter and I surprised myself when I laughed uncontrollably at something silly my husband said at the gas station. By the time my wig and lingerie came off in the bedroom, most of my insecurities had melted away. Before our trip ended, I took one last long look in the mirror in the light of day. I saw both of us…me and her, and I felt surprisingly grateful. Grateful because I was finally able to see ME again. And grateful because she was strong enough to carry me when I was lost and terrified. She was actually a badass warrior and not the frail, broken shell of a person I mistook her to be. The reconnection and self-awareness I felt, with myself in that moment, realizing that I had survived the unimaginable was truly one of the most humbling and stirring moments of my life.
And I finally understood that even if I felt undesirable and lacked desire, what I actually truly needed and had categorically ignored and denied myself during my treatment, was intimacy.
Intimacy in the way we connect with others and with ourselves…in words, in touch, in smiles, in small gestures. Intimacy in the way there is a silent knowing when looking at someone you love…all the secrets and words said and unsaid that are yours and yours alone. Intimacy like letting someone who cares about you empty your surgical drains and clean your kitchen before giving your daughter a bath. Intimacy like when you laugh with someone at the same time at something that’s not even particularly funny but just ridiculous or order meals off the menu, intending to share, knowing what the other person will like. Intimacy like when you need a manicure but you’re so sick you can’t leave the house and your friend shows up unannounced to give you one. Intimacy like when it’s time to leave a party and your person looks at you across the room and gives you that wink and a nod and you instantly know it’s time to go. Intimacy like when you’re going through cancer and you’re scared out of your mind and someone next to you grabs your hand to let you know they won’t leave you. And on and on and on and…