Aimee Swartz couldn't deny her love for Jackie. Her friends couldn't believe she'd take on so much pain.
By Aimee Swartz
I met Jackie shortly after I left a relationship that made my world feel small and crushing -- that made romance feel impossible. Which was fine, since Jackie was only a friend; she'd never even dated a woman. She was disarming, generous, a world-class doler-outer of advice. She played me her favorite albums—the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet, Quasi's Featuring "Birds"—and sang every word. She told me stories about her girlhood in a hippie cult, riding a dirt bike through California's Central Valley. She was so cool—uninhibited and completely herself. Her air of calm made her easy to be around and, as time passed, hard to be away from. She made me feel like everything was going to be okay.
Which was ironic.
Jackie was 35 when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer that typically afflicts people twice her age. The doctors told her that most patients were lucky to live five years. By the time I saw Jackie in a documentary about cancer and reached out to ask her where I could buy the hat she wore in the film ("Fuck Cancer", it read), she had held on for seven years. The treatments she was getting would prolong her life but would not save it.
This fact had shaved a layer off Jackie's social graces: She ditched the polite filters of conversation and gave others a thrilling pass to do the same. One of the first things she asked me was, "What's your story?" She wanted to know everything about me, even if it meant asking thorny questions. And so we became very close very fast. Our talks meandered through the peaks and valleys of our lives, our uncensored histories. Sometimes, if it got too late, I'd crash at her place, where the possibility of touching hands or bumping elbows in the night kept me awake. (She had a couch, but in typical Jackie fashion was letting someone crash on it—so we shared her bed.) That I was nursing any romantic hope sneaked up on me; it was weeks before I noticed that when we hugged goodbye and Jackie pressed her face into my neck, my knees went wobbly.
But I still didn't see her as a romantic prospect. She had taken herself off the market.
"No one wants to be with someone on her way out," Jackie said one night. The reality of her cancer—meds that made her drifty, the sudden limitations on her aspirations, the imminent full stop—had been too much for some of Jackie's friends, who showed up less and less and then disappeared altogether. She no longer believed that anyone would stay when things got heavy.
Maybe it was the way her eyes locked onto mine as she said these words, or the uncertainty in her voice, as though she were hoping I would disagree. Whatever it was, the moment she told me no one would love her again, I knew I did.
I spent the summer in a state of cautious euphoria. Jackie didn't look sick, and we were having fun, so I put my fear out of my mind. Call it denial; my friends called it a wanton courting of heartbreak. They peppered me with questions I couldn't answer: Was I ready to be a caregiver? What would happen after she was gone? I kept to my drumbeat—I feel something real; I think she feels it, too. But when I let myself think about falling for someone with a terminal illness, the rosy vision I had for my future faded to gray.
It would be weeks more before Jackie and I finally kissed one balmy night. It felt as if it had always been a feature of our friendship, as natural as breathing. Still, she, too, was concerned for me. "It's not fair for you to have to deal with this," Jackie said that night. Then she fell asleep. I listened to her breath, feeling the weight of my love. It was bigger than cancer, bigger than fear. I would lose her someday. But I couldn't let it be that day, not when there could still be so many left.
We've been together for more than three years. There are good times, and there are times when Jackie is so weak, she can't put on her shoes. How will it feel to watch her slip away? I think about her dying in our house and my living there alone. I still don't know the answers to my friends' questions. I don't know what will happen, or when. All I know is that I want to be with Jackie, in heartache and joy, sickness and health, for however long we get.