Kevin and I separated two years ago; only on paper do we remain married. With time and a lot of therapy, we managed to find our way into genuine friendship, and I know many people can’t say that. But as Americans living abroad in Vienna, we haven’t felt a need to officially end our marriage.
We keep good boundaries, except for one Monday last January when I took him out to celebrate his new job. After a few too many Aperol spritzes, we tripped home. In front of the U-Bahn station by St. Stephen’s Cathedral, at the top of the escalator, Kevin kissed me goodbye. First on the cheek, then on the lips. No tongue, nothing wild. He said it was “out of habit” and “technically we’re still married.”
I said good night and that I would pick him up from his colonoscopy on Friday, because “that’s a job for your technical-still-wife.”
So Kevin kissed me on Monday and found out he had colon cancer on Friday, and we never talked about the kiss.
The cancer was Stage 3B. Which is an alphanumeric code you can Google if you are in the mood to read a long list of heartbreaking numbers.
Here is another heartbreaking number: Kevin was only 31.
I have too much experience with cancer, not my own, but the cancer of so many friends and family that I have lost count. My mother died of pancreatic cancer when I was 19. This experience has made me terrific in an emergency — good at answering middle-of-the-night phone calls, used to having my name screamed for help.
I was built for this situation. I was made to be there for him. After getting the news, I went to Kevin’s apartment, where we called his mother. I was Kevin’s only family here. She got online to renew her passport, and I found an apartment to rent for her.
I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew I couldn’t be the wife anymore. I could be the friend, but not the wife.
I stayed at Kevin’s place that night. We slept in our underwear. It had been a long time since my body was a sensual thing for him. When we were together, he would cuddle at the beginning of the night before rolling over to his side of the bed. But that night we remained in place, the sweat pooling between our bodies.
I stopped by often in the early weeks for planning and to tell tasteless jokes that kept us up laughing until we cried. I stayed with him after the surgery, after the news it had spread. My father flew to Vienna for moral support. Kevin’s mother came and took over.
She stayed with him after the early rounds of chemo. I sat in my apartment, which had been our apartment, staring at my phone until I fell asleep at 5 a.m. I learned the next morning that Kevin had complications. He woke at 3 a.m., screaming from stomach pain. No one had called me. An ambulance was called. Pain medication was given. The doctors had no idea what was happening, or why.
His mother stayed until her visa expired. Then it was my turn to watch him after chemo. I prepared to be the person who maybe would have to call an ambulance.
I recalled the morning when I woke to my father’s screams, when I held my mother convulsing in my arms, when she spit foam into my elbow. The morning she turned blue, and I begged her to breathe, and I begged her to stay with me.
To be fair, every cancer is different, and every love is different. To be fair, she did stay with me, for a little while.
Kevin told me that the pain typically lasted five minutes. Our plan: To do our best to avert it. If it happened, he could scream into a pillow while I would set a timer. I said if it ticked a second past five minutes, I would call an ambulance. I never got a chance to set the timer.
Just before 9 p.m., Kevin took a sleeping pill and changed into pajamas. I washed a few dishes, a skill I was better at as a friend than as a wife. I changed into my nightgown, removed my underwear, and realized the clean pair was in my bag. I was brushing my teeth when Kevin called out from the other room. I dropped the toothbrush and ran. Then, as per the plan, Kevin screamed. He gasped and curled into a ball. I offered him the pillow, but he couldn’t hold it. Then he stopped breathing.
I called 144, the Austrian equivalent of 911, and gave militarily efficient information about his condition and our location.
A minute later, Kevin’s body relaxed, the arch in his back gave way, and he made a horrific rattling sound. Then, he breathed again, choking air into his lungs. He seemed oddly — fine? I grabbed the emergency bag, put pants on him and waited for the E.M.T.s.
This was a year ago, during another wave of Covid. I was triple-vaccinated and had recovered from Covid within 30 days with a certificate to prove it, and I had a 24-hour old negative P.C.R. test, and I was legally married to the man on the gurney, but they still wouldn’t let me in the ambulance. So I watched it drive away.
I ordered a taxi and called a friend while I waited. I did not cry. When the taxi delivered me, I got out of the car and realized I was standing on the street in the cold wearing only a nightgown and no underwear.
The terrible reality of the world is that in any love story, there are two options: You break up, or someone dies. Death is the celebrated scenario, exulted in traditional vows. We wrote our own, so I never agreed to the whole “until death do us part” thing. And yet here I was anyway.
There was a moment early on in our relationship when Kevin visited me in New York. He woke up one morning with the light from my bedroom window shining in his eyes, making them crinkle, and reached out his shaky hands to grab my face. He looked like this little old man, and in that moment, I could see our whole story play out. The celebrated scenario and all. So maybe I agreed to it then.
Kevin survived the night. For his fourth round of chemo, they admitted him to the hospital. By then, the chemo was affecting his cognitive functioning. I sent him a list of all the things to bring. He forgot to read it. That afternoon, he texted: “Could you bring me a phone charger?”
I was annoyed, but I brought it, because I would need to know if Kevin was still alive, and to do that I needed him to have a working cellphone. I asked if he needed anything else and he said no. I brought him a bag of food anyway, because hospital food is terrible and he wouldn’t be in the mood to eat after chemo but would wake up hungry later, and because I am trained for this.
I couldn’t enter the hospital without a negative P.C.R. test, so we stood outside of the entryway among the smokers and security guards. It was cold, which triggered his neuropathy, a lovely side effect. I stood there with my not-husband and gave him his phone charger. He took the snacks and said, “You’re the best.”
I told him to check that I was still his emergency contact. I kissed him on the cheek, and then briefly on the lips, and we never talked about the kiss.
I went to a bar four blocks away, ordered a whiskey sour and stared at my phone, begging it not to ring. I had just rearranged my entire day to bring my ex-husband a phone charger I had already reminded him not to forget, an exchange that took all of five minutes, and now here I was, annoyed and alone.
But if you lose someone you love, as I may soon lose Kevin, you will kick yourself for missing out on the five minutes you could have spent standing outside of a hospital entrance in the freezing cold among the smokers and the security guards.
So, find the people you want to be around and be around them. Invent a ridiculous excuse to spend an afternoon in their company: Go shopping for Scotch tape, watch them buy groceries, whatever. Call the person you love most, right now, and say, “I have to buy ink cartridges for my printer. Would you like to come along?”
Alessandra Ranelli is a writer in Vienna. She is currently finishing her first novel, a murder mystery.
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