We regard each other through an old pane of glass; me on one side, sipping wine and finishing lunch, he on the other, flitting from place to place searching for crumbs, stopping sporadically to assess me, not entirely trusting the glass between us. He is the Andean equivalent of a sparrow–a dime a dozen–but as I watch him more closely, limping along in search of food as he hobbles on one foot, I feel sorry for this wounded bird. He flies away abruptly, in tandem with another. Soon it becomes a flock, and the one-footed bird soars higher than the rest up into the Andes without restriction or hesitation. I smile for him, no longer feeling sorry.
“Did you see that bird?” I ask my husband, returning my attention to our lunch–an Argentine buffet in a large dining room filled with bathrobe-clad thermal bathers. He smiles sheepishly as he looks up from his plate with a mouthful of food, shaking his head no.
I remember last night, him showing me the raised red rash, three inches long, on the inside of his thigh. With no lymph nodes in his right groin, his internal filtration system is damaged, and excessive swelling a constant battle waged. Red rashes that appear on his leg on a ten-day South American excursion become cause for alarm, reminding him that he was sick, that he is the unfortunate but lifetime owner of this indiscriminate disease. And it is a reminder to me–perched on the side of the bed, wondering how close we are to the hospital–that nothing in our life will ever be the same.
In Santiago, after too many pisco sours and double whiskeys, an old friend of mine leans back in the hotel lounge chair, looking at my husband with wisdom and a dash of pity.
“I’m so glad you’re healthy, man.” He leans forward and clinks glasses with my husband, sealing their new but life-long friendship. And now, we are all acutely aware of how long–or short–that lifetime can be.
Two days later, in Buenos Aires, in front of our old apartment, pressing our noses to the glass, we wonder who is working the door today. A familiar face rushes toward us from inside.
“I can’t believe it!” our old doorman cries as he grabs my husband by the shoulders, affirming that he is, in fact, real. “You’re here! You’re healthy! Thank God!”
Tears stream down his cheeks as he tries in vain to recover from the shock at seeing my husband again–alive. A tenant we don’t recognize exits the elevator off to our right, hesitating–realizing he’s interrupted something deeply personal–but then moves by us.
“We’ve really missed you around here,” our doorman says, wiping his face. I watch my husband as he struggles to speak, blinking back tears. He looks down at his feet for just a second, and, jaw clenched, he looks back up.
“It’s great to be back,” he finally manages.
“What about the bird?” my husband asks me, bringing me back to the brunch at the thermal mud bath in the argentine side of the Andes. He pauses to watch me, a playful smile on his face, before taking a sip of Malbec, relishing the view of mist over mountains, leaning back in his chair. He used the magic mud on his palms–constantly cracked and splitting and rough since the start of his clinical trial–and out of habit he rubs his hands together now.
I pick up my glass and shake my head, laughing. “Never mind,” I smile. We toast.
We walk through the terminal, the sun setting on our vacation as it sinks behind the Andes. Beyond our gate we see the familiar green glow of the Starbucks sign and walk toward it–a reflex. As we approach, a familiar melody floats from the kiosk–a song from our wedding. Without a word, he pulls me in and we dance in the middle of it all while Ray LaMontagne serenades: You are the best thing. I imagine travelers moving around us, beyond us, some amused, smiling as they stop for a moment. But I don’t see them. I am buried in his neck, I am feeling the soft skin of his palm. I am breathing in his breath, his life.
We are about to order a coffee, about to board a plane, return to our life on the run from cancer. But now, now we sway in tiny circles, and the world waits.
And as I lay my head against his chest and gaze out the big picture window, for a brief moment, just before our dancing circles turn me away, I swear I can see a flock of birds rising high above the Andes, the fading light catching on their wings.
Originally published November 18, 2014