I’m travelling home from college, but I’m not really behind the steering wheel of my car. Really I’m travelling through the years of my life. Most of the roads have nothing but golden fields on both sides, and few other cars to distract me so there’s nothing but time for quiet contemplation, for my life’s soundtrack to pour out of the speakers, for questions about what the future holds.
My mind flashes back to a week ago, to a conversation that could change the past and the future. It was a conversation bigger than, “Who was that guy you were with?” Bigger than “Will you write to me?” Bigger than “Can you forgive me?”
It’s another weekend of shuffling around dates with two boys back home. I spend a sunny Saturday with Ryan, still amazed at how his apparent sincerity is holding up. In the back of my mind, I keep waiting for him to blow me off for some other girl. I steel myself against it, making sure the walls are strong enough that it won’t hurt much if he does it.
“Aim, there’s something I need to tell you about.”
His voice has an anxious quality to it. It’s different than I’ve ever heard from him. I can’t quite predict what’s coming, but my caution meter is in the red zone.
“You know how when you’re getting your mission papers ready, you have to go in for a physical?”
“Well… they found something unusual when I went in for mine. There was an abnormality and there’s… well, there’s a possibility that it could be cancer.”
This is not what I expected. This isn’t even in the realm of anything I could’ve predicted. Ryan’s too strong for fear, too untouchable for sickness. My eyes grow small, the world grows too big in an instant, and my heart grows tight in my chest.
“Don’t worry! It’s gonna be just fine. It’s in a place where they can operate. There’s a surgery scheduled and uh, they’re just gonna get rid of it.”
“Get rid of it? But they don’t know that it’s cancer?”
“No, they can’t really know until they remove it and test it.”
“I don’t see any way around explaining it to you. I mean, you need to know, but it’s kind of a forbidden topic.” He sucks in a breath, an almost embarrassed breath, and I find I’m blushing a little and don’t know why.
He says, “They suspect… testicular cancer. Do you know what I mean?”
“Oh man. In my family we don’t even say the word ‘cancer’. We call it ‘the C-word’ when we’re forced to talk about it at all, and now here we are putting the C-word and the T-word together,” I force out a quiet, nervous laugh.
“I know that this is awkward,” he says. “I know that we don’t normally discuss anatomy and you may not be familiar with my unmentionables, but… they’re pretty familiar with you.” Okay. Now he’s being shocking and funny and now I really am blushing.
“Oh! Ryan. Don’t deflect right now. Please do not deflect right now! I’m worried about you!”
“I know. That’s why I’m deflecting,” he says with a confident smile.
“What does- Is- is your family okay with all of this?” I ask.
He’s quiet too long before he says, “Yeah, they’re fine. The doctors are gonna take care of this.”
I pressed for more information after that. I was able to coax him into admitting that his family is worried. That his Mom has shed some tears. Moms can’t avoid tears when they think of their babies and the C-word. Families can’t avoid falling to their knees and sending up desperate and fervent pleas when they think of their loved ones and the C-word.
I’ve been sending up some careful requests since then, myself. Ryan has been the subject of my prayers for a long time. Somewhere around 1,972ish days. First I was a young, foolish girl, trying to get some sort of reassurance that he was my future husband. Then I was a heartbroken girl, pleading that I could get through one day and then the next. And then of course, there was a time when I bitterly forced myself to pray for my enemies, to find some forgiveness for the boy who spitefully used me and persecuted me. A little dramatic, but totally the way I felt. Now, no sooner have we come to a tenuous truce, a cautious understanding, than I’m on my knees again, pleading for his health, for his safety, for his life.
It’s almost dark when I pull into home’s driveway. I go inside and greet my parents, call Ryan to tell him I’m here.
“I’ll walk over and meet you,” he says. The plan is for us to watch a movie at his house tonight.
I don’t ask about the surgery yet. It took place a couple of days ago and I still don’t know the outcome. That’s how distant I’m still keeping things between us. I’m torn between being this supportive person that, maybe, he needs, and being this jaded girl that doesn’t plan on ever getting hurt again.
I catch up with my parents for a few more minutes and then tell them goodbye and head out to meet Ryan. I get to the front lawn when I see his dark figure, drawn up straight, but limping just a bit as he nears. The supportive person that, maybe, he needs comes out in me and I run up to him and throw my arms around him. He stiffens in my embrace and I pull away to find an almost hidden grimace of pain at the corner of his mouth, followed by an attempt at an appreciative smile.
“Ryan,” I breathe, my concern stealing my voice away, “You’re in a lot of pain.”
“Nah. Not too much.”
He turns for us to start walking back to his house, but now I can really see how carefully he’s walking.
“Are you even supposed to be out of bed?” I ask.
“I wanted to walk over here and meet you,” he says.
“That didn’t answer my question,” I say, leaning toward his waist and wrapping my arm around it for support. The pain must be really bad because he accepts the help by wrapping an arm around my shoulder and leaning some of his weight on me as he walks.
I’m more afraid now than I’ve been since I heard about the possibility that he might have cancer. Now I see that he’s masterful at hiding things to protect the people he cares about from worry. Now I see that sometimes it’s so bad that he can’t hide it. Now I see that he can be vulnerable.
So as we walk carefully down the lamp lit street, I start pelting him with anxious questions. “How did the surgery go? Did everything go as it should?”
I see anger darken his eyes as he practically spits out the words, “Oh yeah, the surgery went great if worthless surgeries are the goal of the medical world.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they found out that it wasn’t cancer, and I’m going through all of this for nothing.”
I balance my relief with sympathy and I cast my next words out to him the way he casts out the line when he’s fly fishing. “Isn’t it a blessing that it wasn’t cancer? That you’re going to be okay? I know I’m really happy to hear it…”
His anger dissipates, leaving him to respond in the right way, but with deflated words. “Yeah, of course. It could be a lot worse. My family is extremely relieved that it wasn’t cancer.”
I smile. “I bet your Mom has been pampering the heck out of you.”
That coaxes a genuine smile from him in response. “Almost enough to make it worth it,” he says. “She cooks me anything that sounds good, I have a supply of my favorite candy, and she has a cushy bed all made up for me on the family room floor in front of the TV. Right now it’s really calling my name.”
“Well then let’s get you back to it,” I say, helping him up the stairs of his front porch.
Once we have him leaned back against a plethora of overstuffed pillows and covered in soft, colorful quilts, hand quilted with lots of love by his Mom, I cuddle in next to him and we start the movie.
I’m not watching it though. I’m sneaking looks at him, still so shocked that any of this is happening. I realize that even when I was trying hard to forget all about Ryan, it was still so good knowing that he was somewhere out there in the world. That he was out there making people laugh, delivering the perfect line, being enthusiastic about a football game, feeling passionate about a book, believing in himself like nobody else I know can do. I’m realizing how empty the world would be if he left it. If we don’t end up together, if we marry other people, if he spends the next two years in… in… Cambodia for crying out loud- at least I get to know that he’s out there somewhere making this world a brighter place.
He looks over at me then. “If you keep looking at me like that, your promise to green lid guy is going the way of my recent cancer scare,” he says.
I giggle. “I don’t have any more promises to keep,” I say, “The next two years are going to be absolutely promise free.”
It’s abrupt the way he turns his face toward me and his expression holds a little bit of a question and a lot of a purpose. I look back at him. “I talked to him,” I say. “We’re still seeing each other, but no more promises. I can’t do the next two years with the pressure of promises.”
Then Ryan’s hand is at the back of my head, his lips are pressing against mine, and the world is turning into a brighter place indeed.
The kiss is something new. It’s got a drop of familiarity, but it’s got loads of new excitement, new possibilities, fear and thrill and passion and caution and restraint. Restraint. Ryan pulls back, blinking the heat out of his eyes and taking a deep breath. He looks at me and nods, like his mind is listing reasons to end the kiss right there. Then he deflects one last time. “Well, my unmentionables still recognize you, so I guess the doctors didn’t ruin me completely.”
I gasp, and my cheeks heat up like a furnace. I smack him in the shoulder and he laughs.
“Hey!” he says, “Be careful! I’m delicate!”
“Please, you haven’t been delicate a day in your life,” I laugh, and after that, it’s safest if I stop watching him and watch the movie instead.