When I was 18, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
I got the phone call while sitting in my ex-boyfriend’s car. One day, a little over a year later, in fact, he’d be my husband. But in that moment, he was something like my friend but not. He was comfortable and familiar and even while we wandered, dated new people, connected our names with an “and” to others, we kept each other in sight.
He’d had a job interview and I’d had a broken down car and classes I was already late for. I decided, for no real reason, to go with him. Hang in the car while he did his thing, then go to my next class, rather than walking into my first one late. I had some homework I could work on. Sociology research to do. I was explaining my paper to him as we drove, it was on religion, when I got the call from my doctor.
The recent testing I’d had done after an abnormal pap came back. The news wasn’t good.
Words, so many words, spoken in a too calm voice and I knew them but not like this. Not put together in this way.
I nodded as though she could see me when she said she was sending me to University of Michigan immediately for further testing. That they’d be waiting for me and when did I think I could be there?
Work, I said. I have work and school and softball season is coming up I have to train and and and…
“Kristy.” That’s all she said. Just my name, in that same tone. Too calm. Too steady. Too real.
I’d be there Friday I said. It was Tuesday. Give me till Friday.
She wasn’t happy, but she agreed. Told me she’d get everything set up. Call me back with names and floors and times. I nodded again and hung up in a daze.
Betty was glancing over at me as I let my phone fall into my lap, eyebrows raised in question.
“Cancer.” It fell from my lips and shattered at my feet and I fell apart around it.
I was drowning. Drowning in fear. Drowning in the possibilities. Drowning in a word that could destroy my world. My chest was cracking open and I clutched at it with trembling, cold fingers, grasping for the jagged edges that had to be there as hot tears tore my throat apart.
Betty pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and turned toward me, but before he could do something dangerous like touch skin that felt like cracked, strained glass, I gasped out, “make something up.”
I couldn’t look at him. Not like this. When I was breaking so thoroughly in front of him. “Make something up. Anything. Make it good and believable. Make it up.”
“Okay.” He nodded. Fumbled with the heat dial on the dash. Nodded again. “Okay. You’re gonna go to the hospital. You’re gonna go through the testing. It’s all gonna come back clear. They won’t find a single thing and it’s gonna confuse them but they’ll shrug and it’ll be nothing.”
“What if –” and I choked. Choked around the words. “What if they have to take everything out? I don’t want kids but maybe — maybe some day…”
“We’ll adopt. As many as you want. Or dogs. We’ll adopt a whole litter of dogs and we’ll have a big house with tons of little feet running through it and we’ll step over toys and bitch about the mess and we’ll be happy.”
In the end, weeks, dark, terrifying weeks later where I drank too much and cried too often and moved through work and school in a daze punctuated by random outbursts and middle of the night calls to him, begging that he make something up, his first prediction was closest. Scans that had been omnious, distressing, were suddenly coming back clear. A scare, the team at UofM said. A fluke.
A miracle, my mama and doctor whispered. It was a miracle and so was I.
It became our ritual. Over 12 years of me looking over at him, this boy who isn’t a boy anymore but will always be to the girl who fell for him, and asking for something to be made up in our darkest moments. A happy ending to be written, even temporarily. Something to hope for. Something to work for. Something to fight for so I could fight for us. Make something up and make it good.
Tuesday night, as I watched the election results come in, as states, including my own, were called for a dangerous, racist bigot who incites dangerous racism and bigotry, tears slipped down my face. I thought of all those Trump signs in my town, my state. As he slipped ahead of Hillary, and Gulliani compared this “victory” to Andrew Jackson, I broke down. I rushed out back, collapsed into a chair, and sobbed. Heaving, ugly cries that rocked me forward with each one and made me gasp for breath. I was terrified. I was heartbroken. I felt like my chest was caving in as each devastating possibility of a Trump presidency fully hit me for the first time. I was scared for so much and for so many, including myself. My children. I reached for anger, for hope, for anything I could grab onto but there was nothing. Only ugly, grim, overwhelming truth. We were fucked. My family, my dearest friends, people I knew and people I didn’t were fucked, and I was surrounded by people who would smile to my face, commiserate with me when I pointed out how he incited violence, mocked people like my son, called my niece and nephews rapists, called for my friends to be rounded up, their parents thrown out, and laughed about sexual assault, of which me and far too many are victims of, and voted for him anyway. For every dangerous policy he promised to enact and the people who would help see it through.
I remembered the guy, the night before, who called for my children to be put down on Twitter. The guy who shouted out of his truck window at me and my five-year-old son to “go home,” and the sizzle and pop of firecrackers thrown out of a car window at us as we walked to the store to get him chocolate milk. The way people around here had stopped smiling at me in recent months, and instead edged away. People I know, had lived around for four years, had started treating me like an interloper in my own town. And now it was being called a victory, compared to the very man who caused limbs of my family tree to be cut off. Who tried to destroy my people among other heinous acts.
I rocked and I struggled to breathe and I wondered how I’d tell my kids, who had gone to bed after crying their own terrified tears. How could I reassure them everything would be okay when nothing was? How could I look into their eyes and tell them they were safe when they, and so so many, weren’t?
Betty came outside, face stoic, took one look at me sitting there, falling apart, and that tic in his jaw appeared. The one only I ever see, ever recognize, as him struggling to be strong around his own emotions. He opened his mouth but before he could say anything, I gasped out, “make something up.”
He handed me a beer. Sat down across from me. Was silent.
Later, after I’d pulled myself together enough to go inside, wash my face for new tears to bathe, and curled up in a chair next to him, he quietly whispered, “We’re gonna be okay.”
“Hmm?” It was all I could manage. My ugly, desperate sobs were now pitiful, unrelenting ones.
“We’re gonna be okay,” he repeated. “We will be.”
I almost lashed out. I barely managed to bite it back. But he looked at me, eyes searching my face and I saw what he was doing. Not offering platitudes. He was making something up.
And for the next 24 hours, that’s what he continued to do. When my chin would start trembling again, when my hands started shaking around whatever mundane task I was trying to accomplish, as I relayed the terrified texts from friends, he’d elaborate further. He said people would fight. People would rise up. That we’d be okay, okay, okay, okay.
He told me a story. An elaborate story that soothed raw, naked nerve-endings and put bandaids over the parts of me that were bleeding. I gave him updates, things I read on Twitter, pictures I saw of the hate crimes already taking place, and he’d nod, then give me the next line of his story so I could look at the next thing, face it, start formulating plans for all the worst case scenarios, of which there are many. He handed me a light, took my hand, and I pulled him a little further into the dark, into the ugly reality we have no choice but to navigate through.
Because that’s what stories are. They’re hope. They’re a light. They’re a hand reaching out. They’re a brief escape from the fight, the struggle, and they’re a weapon. The most dangerous weapon, because words are the most powerful things and we, as a people, have survived through awful, devastating times because we told them. Because we gave each other something to work toward, to fight for. We gave each other happy endings and that gave us strength when we desperately needed it.
We desperately need strength right now. Hope. Things are dark and we need a light. A hand. We need to hear that happiness still exists, could still exist, and could be ours.
Make something up.
Make it good and believable.