Safety Measures

Thursday, December 12, 2019

I had this dream around seven this morning, after waking up at 5:30 and having difficulty falling back asleep. This was a rare Jessica dream I’ve remembered since she died.

I was looking down at the street from the window of our home—not the house where we actually live, although it was familiar. Jess was parking. She had been on a shopping trip with the kids, someplace like IKEA, and had brought home lots of big bags. She was driving a metallic light-blue truck/SUV hybrid, and for a moment it was rapidly shape-shifting like a transformer. I recalled that earlier in the day she had been driving this car, too, instead of our black Subaru Forrester. I feared she had been in an accident.

Jess took some shopping bags out of the trunk and, to my surprise, began walking up the side of the house. It took me a second remember that there was a door to the room I was sitting in: I was in our second-story apartment on Castleton Street in Jamaica Plain, where we had lived during our first year in Boston. We had a porch facing the street. She opened the door and I saw at once that her face was cold and she was avoiding my eyes. What had happened?

At once angry and hurt, she explained: I had turned off one of the Subaru’s safety features, the one that allows all four wheels to act independently in snowy weather. She had gotten in an accident, and now she blamed me. “I thought I had turned that back on,” I said. Hadn’t I? But even so, I thought, an accident is an accident: who’s to say a single safety feature would have made a difference? And how could I have anticipated such a thing anyway?

The Subaru was more or less explicitly a parting gift from Jessica to the kids and me, purchased little more than a month before she died. I didn’t understand at first why she was so keen on our buying this particular car. An SUV? Really? I remember discussing it with my therapist. As I spoke the words it immediately became obvious: the 2019 Subaru Forrester was Consumer Reports’ number-one rated vehicle for safety. Jessica wanted to keep us safe. Of course she did.

We visited two different dealerships before making our purchase. At the first, we test-drove a metallic light-blue Forrester. Audaciously, Jessica was determined to trade in our Mazda 5 on the spot and drive away in the new car. It was closing time, and the agent insisted on taking a day to inspect our dumpy Mazda. So we walked away. At the second dealership a couple weeks later, we looked at the black Forrester. Jessica’s pain was immense at this stage; she would check into the hospital only a few days later. But she wanted to handle the negotiation, which was fine with me. The agent gave his number and Jessica gave hers. His eyes opened wide, and after some tense back and forth, he quietly got up to speak with his boss. Rather than the customary meeting somewhere in the middle, he returned with a sigh, produced paperwork based on Jessica’s number, and we were out the door in a couple hours.

Fiercely determined, fiercely protective. That was Jessica. And I failed to protect her. I was powerless to stop her from dying. Sometimes we would cry together, the kind of crying that suddenly rushes out and takes over. Often in these moments I would involuntarily cover my face in shame. Shame that I couldn’t stop what was happening to her, shame that I couldn’t stop what was happening to our kids. That shame is still with me. Jessica was so loving, she could have protected me from anything. But I couldn’t protect her.

On some level, Jess was never quite able to believe that getting cancer was not her fault. Again and again, for 2+ years, she would tell me: “Say that it’s not my fault.” “Of course it’s not your fault,” I would tell her, and then I’d explain all of the reasons why. I always thought she just needed to be reminded. But could it have been that she needed to know that I didn’t blame her for having cancer? Running parallel to this ritual of reassurance, time and time again, I would tell Jessica how sorry I was, not just for what had happened, but that I couldn’t do more, and that I wasn’t doing more; I always felt that I should be doing more. Every time she told me how much I was helping her, how she couldn’t face this without me. And yet I kept worrying, kept asking. Maybe I worried that she blamed me, too.

After her mastectomy in 2013, Jessica’s oncologist put her on a ten-year course of the drug Tamoxifen, which was meant to diminish the already low chance of recurrence. The drug had many difficult side effects, including extreme irritability. After a few months, as Jess put it wryly to her doctor, she either needed to come off the drug or I would divorce her. Ultimately her oncologist gave her “permission” to come off, stressing that her chances of recurrence were still low.

This was a terrible error by her oncologist, as we later realized. Jessica should not have been off treatment, and there were alternatives left unexplored. But Jessica felt the error was hers. She once told me that it was incredibly common for women with breast cancer to blame themselves, no doubt a consequence of our culture blaming women for anything that compromises their ability to perform the maternal and spousal functions prescribed for them. And so Jessica’s Tamoxifen guilt fit right into a preexisting narrative, providing a steady dose of psychic pain to match the physical toll of her cancer.

Did I blame myself for the decision? No, not at the time. We followed our doctor’s advice. We trusted her. I believed that neither Jessica nor I was at fault. This was part of how I tried to reassure her: But now Jessica is gone, and the doubts creep in, or launch sudden invasions. My therapist once told me that all characters in my dreams are versions of myself. I know that Jessica would never actually blame me for her cancer, for turning off the Tamoxifen. In my dream, I was blaming myself. But I was mounting a defense, too. These struggles play out in my head each day. Did I love her enough? Did I appreciate her enough? Could I have known her more deeply? And biggest of all: did I do enough to save her?

The day Jessica died, I posted a short note on her facebook page, accompanied by one of my favorite photos. She was standing, wearing a light blue cap and black leather jacket, radiantly beautiful and motherly, with her favorite cat, Max, on one shoulder and her baby Leo in the other arm. Jessica the Nurturer. But now and forever I will also associate this image with her dying. I took the photo at our Castleton Street apartment; we were recently married, new to Boston, and new parents enthralled by our baby Leo. Despite the less happy circumstances, I was glad to see her in that same apartment this morning, scaling the wall like the superwoman she always was, shopping bags in tow, eager to begin her new projects for our home.

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