1 My Story as a Survivor
As the plane made its final approach into Pittsburgh, I peered out the window at the mosaic of shimmering lights below. From my aerial viewpoint, I tried to form a first impression of the city I would soon be calling home. The pilot banked hard, and the soft diffusion of city lights suddenly gave way to the night sky. I sat back in my seat, closed my eyes, and focused my thoughts on the days that lay ahead.
With this trip, I felt certain I was finally free of the past and the threat it had once held for me. Four years earlier, in 1975 at the age of seventeen, I had been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that attacked the soft tissue in my right thigh. With that diagnosis I embarked on a year-long medical odyssey, and learned firsthand what it meant to live with the imminent threat of dying. As grim as the experience was, I emerged from it with new eyes. The world was somehow more vivid to me, richer and more sharply edged. I was exhilarated with the simple joy of being alive and in good health.
But tonight I was also a little scared. I was flying to Pennsylvania to meet my fiancé's parents. As significant as that ritual is for most people, to me it held an even deeper meaning. A commitment to marriage meant a commitment to the future, a personal acknowledgment that I was going to live and thrive. I'd finally put cancer behind me.
Michael, my fiancé, was at the airport waiting to greet me. We had met more than a year before at the University of Colorado- Boulder, shortly after I'd returned to college following cancer treatment. I was then a sophomore intent on getting a degree in business. Michael, a senior, was studying to be an architect. We were introduced through mutual friends, and in two months' time we were dating exclusively.
Michael and I were typical college kids, full of hope and enthusiasm for the future. He had no trouble accepting my medical history, nor did any of my friends. Although I'd had cancer, I didn't see how it could present any obstacles to the plans I envisioned. If anything, beating the disease had made me more resilient and confident in my abilities.
The fall semester arrived, and with it came the realization that Michael would soon be graduating. He planned to move back to Pittsburgh and join his father's architectural firm, where he would be groomed to eventually take over. But Michael and I were very much in love; there was no way we could be apart. We talked about a future together, and then one day, ring in hand, he proposed.
As the chill of winter settled on Boulder, I began to make plans for the wedding and our life together. Michael and I decided that after the wedding we would move back East and I would finish school in Pennsylvania. But I was apprehensive. I'd never even been to Pittsburgh.
"That's easy enough to arrange," Michael said. "Why don't you come home with me for Thanksgiving? You can meet my parents and get to know the city." And so I found myself in Pittsburgh on a cold and moonless November night. As Michael drove away from the airport, I confided how anxious I was. "Just relax and be yourself," he said with a smile. "The rest will work itself out." Although it was late when we arrived, his parents were waiting up for us. We sat in the kitchen and chatted. Michael and I talked excitedly about our plans for the weekend and the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh we hoped to scout for houses. His parents said very little, and I thought it odd. I'd always known Michael to be open and affable, yet his parents seemed subdued, almost distant. But I was tired and more than a little nervous. So I dismissed those first impressions, sure that a good night's sleep would give me a fresh take on my prospective in-laws.
The following morning, Michael's mother agreed to join us for a tour of the city. When we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, she and I sat alone for a few minutes while Michael parked the car. We were trading polite "getting-to-know-you" small talk, when out of the blue she asked, "So what's it like living with a time bomb inside you?" The question stunned me. Was she joking? A look into her expressionless face told me that this was no attempt at gallows humor. Unsure of what to say, I smiled nervously while shrugging my shoulders, and frantically glanced around the restaurant for a sign of my fiancé.
But Michael's arrival did little to disperse the tension between his mother and me. As soon as we returned to the house I told him what had happened. His reaction surprised me. Instead of becoming angry at his mother or empathizing with me, Michael responded with a dismissive shrug. "Oh, Susan," he said inn his breezy manner, "you're being too sensitive. I'm sure she was just trying to make conversation." Perhaps he was right. Although I was still upset, I wasssss determined to overlook the incident.
That evening, Michael's father took us all out for dinner. Michael and his mother were engrossed in conversation when I turned to my future father-in-law and began to chat him up regarding our wedding plans.
"You know, Susan," he began slowly, "I'm sure you can understand my concern . . . as Michael's father . . ." He stared down at the food on his plate and nervously poked at it with his fork. "It's just that . . ." He seemed to want to say more, but was clearly having trouble finding the words to explain himself in detail. Instead, he simply cut to the chase. "It's just that . . . well, I don't want my son to be a widower." In the abrupt and awkward silence that followed, I struggled with what to say. I was young and scared and completely intimidated by his attitude. I knew that if I tried to defend myself, I'd fall apart. Instead I let the remark pass, and, turning to my fiancé, quickly changed the subject.
Once Michael and I were alone, I recounted the remark made by his father. My fiancé brushed it aside with a wave of his hand. Although I assured him that this was no exaggeration, Michael felt that I was overplaying the incident. He could not, or would not, confront his parents. He continued to defend them, obliquely suggesting I be more grown-up about it. I told him I wasn't comfortable staying in their house and would prefer to spend the rest of the weekend in a nearby hotel. I went upstairs to pack, hoping he would join me.
But Michael remained downstairs with his parents. I finished packing my bags, slipped off my engagement ring, and placed it on the bedside table. Shattered and demoralized, I flew home the next day to Palo Alto, California, and my family.
At the time, Michael and his parents' behavior seemed incomprehensible and unforgivable. It wasn't until years later, when a mutual friend mentioned that Michael's uncle had died of cancer shortly before our engagement, that I began to understand the emotional subtext of that weekend in Pittsburgh. My fiancé had never mentioned his uncle's long illness, which had apparently taken a tremendous toll on the family. I now realized that Michael's parents wanted to protect their son from further pain, and in their eyes my medical history jeopardized his happiness. That in turn explained Michael's actions-or more precisely, his inaction. He was undoubtedly afraid that our marriage would anger his parents and was paralyzed by the choice he had to make.
In the months that followed, I did my best to forget about Michael. I moved to San Francisco, where I took a job as a sales representative for a large cosmetics firm. It wasn't long before I formed a close friendship with Ellen, a young colleague who worked alongside me in the marketing department.
Our regional manager informed us that once we had completed our training we would be promoted and given our