My boyfriend Ken and I have been together for four and a half years. Our love story is kind of ridiculous: we were in fourth grade together, and even have a class photo from that year (my eyes are closed. His mouth is open). We spent the next decade or so apart, and met again in my gap year, just a week before I was scheduled to return to the United States. Our first kiss was under a weeping willow tree next to a canal, well past midnight. Three days later, I rebooked my ticket to extend my stay. The rest is history.
It was a cold, sunny day in January, about a week after Ken’s diagnosis. I was sitting in my pastor’s office, in the little house adjacent to my church that the ministry team used as their headquarters. Snow was piled up outside the doors and windows, and slowly dripping from my furry winter boots onto the old carpet. I normally loved the snow, and delighted in the way it glittered in the sunlight on bright winter days. But not today.
I’m 22, and I’m making a fool of myself.
“Will you marry me?” I ask. Not on bended knee, or over a candlelit dinner. All the time. A bad day, a lull in the conversation, a moment of happiness — multiple times a day, I causally propose marriage to Ken, my boyfriend of four years. He smiles and nods, or says yes and continues the conversation. We’re not engaged. It’s not a serious question; it’s part of our routine.
Ever since Ken was diagnosed with MS this winter, this has become a new way for me to say I love you; I’m here to stay; I’m in it for the long haul. It’s almost an affirmation, as though I’m telling both of us that nothing has changed. But, of course, something has changed. Our lives are radically different than they were four months ago.
I’m not an angry person. I don’t like fighting, I shy away from conflict, and even my constructive criticism is coated in several layers of kindness. But since Ken’s diagnosis, that’s changed. They say the second stage of grief is anger, and it seems to be true for me.
Suddenly, I have a bitter streak.
When it comes to relationships, our culture likes to focus on firsts. First kiss. First love. First time. You hear about them from your friends, and see them on TV. You wonder how they’ll be when they happen to you.
But here’s a first I never heard much about, or expected: first diagnosis. First breakdown on the eleventh floor of a hospital, followed by a call your mom, and the first time you give the news to someone else. First big conversation about specialists and treatments and more scans.
I never wove those firsts into my story when I imagined my future. It never occurred to me.