My husband and I have had this “thing” for the past several years about renewing our vows. It started as we approached our 20-year anniversary. I suggested that we renew our vows. His response was swift and definitive and went something like: “No, I did it once and I don’t need to do it again. Besides, you only want to do it so you can have a big party and be the center of attention.”
Well, truth be told, he wasn’t wrong.
The next time it came up was when we were married for 25 years. Through a massive communications breakdown between Greg, one of my daughters, and me, I was under the impression that he wanted to renew our vows. I did what any woman would do if she could – I ordered a custom-made dress. Even though I had that beautiful dress, I just wasn’t feeling it that year. When I told him I wasn’t feeling a vow renewal, he just shrugged and asked where I had gotten the idea to begin with. My daughter of course.
This year marks the 27th year that we have been married. Now, feeling it – because it’s AC (after cancer) and things that once didn’t matter so much now seem to matter a lot. He was open to it but thought we should wait for a big anniversary, like our 30th. It makes sense, of course, but I couldn’t get comfortable with it. How could I tell him that we had to do it this year because deep down I thought I might not be alive in three years? I didn’t want to say that aloud, but I was definitely thinking about it. Perhaps he picked up on it on his own – I don’t know, but we agreed that we would have a vow renewal, just the two of us, on the beach.
Fast forward a few months and I asked him something about the arrangements and he responded quickly, but nicely: “Do what you want, I’m only doing this to make you happy.” Now, I know many women who would say “Wow, he is doing this just so that I’m happy!” And be ecstatic about it. I’m not one of them. I don’t exactly know how to describe my response, but let’s just say, I went bat-shit crazy and canceled the renewal. My rationale was that a vow renewal was like a wedding of sorts and you don’t get married just to make your partner happy. Right?
I took one more run at it a couple of weeks later when we were in a place where we could have a serious talk – the car. I told him I was going to ask him a serious question and he had to give me a truthful answer no matter how uncomfortable it made him. I said that he could take his time, but he had to be honest. That this wasn’t one of those questions like “Do these jeans make my butt look big?” and he says no, but we both know they do. Anyway, the question. “After everything we’ve been through and especially the last couple of years, would you marry me again?” I held my breath hoping for an answer sooner rather than later. Before I suffocated he said, “Yes, definitely.” I said okay then, we’ll renew our vows.
I decided to unpack why this vow renewal was so important to me, even putting aside the timing issue. I guess you don’t have to be Freud or B.F. Skinner to figure this one out. But it took me some time. I’m not an insecure person, usually. Before cancer, I was very confident in myself — sometimes overly so. After cancer, sometimes I’m almost the exact opposite — shrouded in self-doubt on occasion.
When I met my husband, I was 27 years old, an NFL cheerleader with a cute size 2 figure that I did absolutely nothing to maintain – it was just natural. I had tons of energy and never met a party I didn’t like. Damnit, I was fun!
Over time, I changed, but not that much. (At least I don’t think so, but Greg might think differently). Clearly, I’m not an NFL cheerleader anymore; we have children who are adults now; I’m still up for a party, but only if it ends by 9:00 pm. And that size 2 figure? Well, two years ago it was a size 4/6, which wasn’t so bad. But today, it’s a wreck. I have scars, lots of them. I have fat in strange places that I don’t remember having a year ago. I didn’t know then that the average breast cancer patient gains 15-20 pounds during treatment. That would have been nice to know. I would have eaten less ice cream. Maybe. I thought cancer patients were supposed to be skinny? Turns out it depends on what kind of cancer you have.
My 1.5 boobs – remember, I’m still awaiting re-reconstruction; I have a tissue expander on the left and an implant on the right – are really lopsided. I mean really. One is a full inch higher than the other one. The half-boob points down and to the left and the whole one points up and to the right, and I think it’s starting to sag. My doctor said something about needing a breast lift on that side. Really? From great boobs to no boob, to sagging boob to breast lift? It’s just ridiculous. And it’s sad too — at least to me. Needless to say, I have body image issues.
Did you know that a married woman with a serious disease is six times more likely than a man to be divorced or separated before her treatment ends? The divorce rate increases by 50% when a woman gets a breast cancer diagnosis. It happens so often there’s a term for it – partner abandonment.
After reading those stats and many more, I imagined myself in the midst of partner abandonment. I’m a 54-year old woman with a body I barely want to show my doctor let alone someone new. How do you tell someone new that you’re not quite yourself physically? Second date, over dessert? Nope, not me. Which meant only one thing – I was destined to grow old alone in a house full of dogs and useless things that I’ve hoarded over the years and when I died no one would know because the dogs would have eaten me because there was no dog food.
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but I did start to worry about the rest of my life. Who would I date? Who would date me; assuming I’d have the confidence to do so? Men have more options as they get older; women have fewer. Cancer patients even less maybe. Cancer leaves you feeling like damaged goods.
And that was the crux of the whole vow renewal thing. Fear. If my husband didn’t want me, who would? If he didn’t want to renew our vows, was it a signal of the beginning of the end? At times I certainly thought so.
How in the hell did I become this person? If a friend gave me this sob story I think I’d slap her and say “what the hell is wrong with you?”
What’s wrong is that I had cancer. What’s wrong is that cancer has taken more away from me than it’s given. What’s wrong is that I wonder every day if one day I will be in the partner abandonment club. What’s wrong is that I spend any time at all having these thoughts. It’s not rational, but neither is this disease that you can never quite get away from.
Right about the time I started to circle the drain with these thoughts, my husband came upstairs and entered the room.
I looked up from my writing because I could feel him staring at me.
When I caught his eye, he looked at me and said ever so kindly, “I choose you. Every day, I choose you.”