It was cold the night of our first date. I pressed down on the colostomy bag that rests on my belly and collects my body's waste to make sure it was flat against my skin and pushed my hands deep into my pockets to keep them warm as I walked toward Lesleigh.
My hands ached from the chill. The pain of it acted as a not-so-subtle reminder of the damage that a year of cancer treatments had done to my body. But the anxiety I felt from being out on another date overwhelmed the pain in my hands. Since finishing treatment six months earlier, I had been on three other dates, none of which had ended well.
In the months after divorcing my wife, and prior to becoming sick, my weeks were bifurcated. Half the week, I was a single father working hard to provide a stable home for my children in the midst of an unstable time. The other half I was a man on his own trying to navigate dating for the first time in my life. Prior to being married, relationships had grown organically out of friendships rather than being the result of formal dates with women I'd met online.
Just as I was becoming more comfortable with my new life, I discovered that what I thought was a hemorrhoid was actually a tumor in my rectum. There was hope for recovery, but the treatment would be painful, last nearly a year and leave me with a permanent colostomy.
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Six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy preceded surgery — on my 41st birthday — to remove my anus, rectum and sigmoid colon. The doctors created a stoma, a small opening from my stomach that would act as the outlet for my colostomy. The last phase was an intense chemo regimen that caused so much nerve damage to my hands and feet that even the slightest bit of cold air was painful.
As I walked toward Lesleigh on that first night, I tried to push from my mind the few dates I had already been on. There was Elizabeth whose daughter had recently died of leukemia. Cancer initially connected us, but she ultimately needed to heal on her own before entering a relationship. The next woman I dated was a friend. My hope was that our friendship could replicate what felt like the "old way" of meeting and connecting with a woman, but it didn't work.
During our last coffee date my colostomy erupted. Gas is a constant enemy for me in public because though it doesn't create an odor — the bag filters it out — there is no sphincter to control when and where it comes out. My date looked at my belly where the bag was and just said, "Oh my …" I haven't seen or heard from her since.
The next woman contacted me through a dating site. After a couple of phone calls, we met in person. I talked about cancer, but I didn't mention the colostomy. Our second date went well enough, but I felt I had to be honest with her about my body and how it had changed, so I told her as I walked her to her car. Cancer is one thing, but a hole in your belly where a small bit of colon protrudes is quite another. She said "OK," got in her car and that was it. She sent an e-mail a few days later saying she no longer wanted to see me, that it had nothing to do with what I had said, but …
Learning to trust again
Dating is a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows filled with promising moments that often are dashed by the free will of another. But you have to trust; you have to believe that when you make a connection based on love and mutual respect that the other person's commitment is no less intense than your own. After all that I've been through it seemed almost poetic to find that I still needed to learn how to trust again.
In the diffuse light of a streetlamp Lesleigh smiled and said softly hello. There was a gentleness behind her words and to her features. We talked for hours that night, first while sipping coffee at a local pub, later at my apartment, sitting side by side on my couch. At one point Lesleigh turned her body and nudged her toes under my thigh to keep them warm. It was the most endearing thing a woman had ever done to me. After a few hours I walked her to her car, and we kissed for the first time.
I didn't mention my secret because I just wanted to be on a date. I wanted to be with someone without encumbering the evening with cancer and colostomy and all of the rest of the muck that comes with me. But I knew I had to tell her soon. We talked on the phone the next evening, and in my discomfort, I randomly brought it up.
Lesleigh paused, "Is your cancer going to come back?"
"I can't say for sure what will happen," I said, "but all of my doctors are confident that it may not."
She paused again. "OK, well I suppose we'll have to work through all that."
After a few weeks of dating, we both knew that this nascent relationship held considerable promise. One night, as we lay together in front of her woodstove, she led me to her bedroom for the first time.
We undressed and climbed into her bed, but cancer had one more "f*** you" in store for me. Hidden beneath the pain of the radiation and surgery and the sickness of chemo was damage to the nerves necessary to achieve an erection. My body and mind wanted her frantically; my soul silently screamed in embarrassment and anguish.
As I would learn later, these difficulties were an on-again-off-again problem that could be cured with a pill when necessary. But for that night, I held her in quiet sorrow. I was convinced that my life would never be whole again, that this relationship was nothing more than a promising meal about to be taken away from a starving man.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Is it me?"
"No, not at all, never," I replied and then feebly described how my treatment had been so focused on this one area of my body that it was inevitable it would have obliterated the anatomy required to make love to her. Lesleigh rested quietly next me, naked, beautiful and sexy, and my newfound impotence burned hotter than anything I had ever felt in my life. Then she turned and kissed me. I wrapped my arms around her as she curled into my body and we lay together, naked and sad.
Lesleigh and I worked through my cancer and physical infirmities, and as we have progressed and fallen in love we have brought our kids together and established amongst all of this complexity a family based on a healthy and loving relationship. At no point have I doubted Lesleigh's love for me nor my love for her. When we were married in a small ceremony at an inn just down the street from where we first met, there was nothing left but the excitement and joy at having found and fallen in love with this wonderful woman.
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