Eleven days after my wedding, two men from the crematorium arrived to take my husband’s body away.
“Do you want his ring?” they asked, pointing to the black titanium band on his left hand.
“No, he should wear his ring,” I said. He should wear it into the afterlife.
A quick look passed between them. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I replied, and turned to my mother-in-law Linda for approval.
“Honey, you should keep his ring,” Linda said gently.
Kaz and I once made up a story of how we met. “You fell on your bike and I stopped to help you,” he said in his baritone voice. This actually happened on our second date. “Sounds good to me,” I said. But we never told the made-up version. Whenever people asked us how we met, we would look at each other, shrug and tell the truth: we met on Match.com. My profile advertised “Curves and Curls – what more do you want?!” His moniker was “Nerdy4Music.”
After years of dating more men than I care to mention, in April 2007 I received an email from Kenneth Allen Smith. “My name is Ken, but everyone calls me KAZ,” he wrote. He was an employed, never married, childless, bald, badass, bespectacled black man, born and raised in Washington D.C. by a single mother. He had equal parts swagger, sensitivity and sweetness, had traveled the world, had real rock stars for friends, was witty, funny, charming, pragmatic, Scorpion sexy, so smart he beat his own computer at chess, and he rode a Honda RC51 sportbike. To quote a female colleague (who once yelled this at a party), Kaz was the coolest motherfucker on the planet.
At the time, I didn’t understand why such a cool guy was dating me, a somewhat neurotic, struggling filmmaker who was not thin. “I like spending time with you,” he explained. “You’re smart, funny, beautiful, good in the kitchen and good in the sack, and you’re sexy as fuck.” I still didn’t buy it.
In 2010, after two years together as a couple, during which we almost broke up once, we learned that the headaches and blurry vision he’d been experiencing were the result of a terminal brain tumor. Neither of us could believe it. Why would a healthy, physically active, forty-two-year-old man get the same disease that killed Ted Kennedy? It was too random to be true.
And yet, for me at least, it felt strangely inevitable. My mother had been ill for much of my childhood and died when she was fifty-six (I was twenty-two). Now, the man I loved more than anything, the best man I’d ever known and probably would ever know, was going to die young, too.
Within days of the diagnosis, he proposed. Kaz didn’t make rash decisions. It had taken nine months for him to say “I love you,” and after two years he was still reluctant to move in together (a source of frustration for me — at thirty-nine, dragging a backpack around every weekend was getting old). But the tumor changed things.
“I don’t know how much time I have left,” he said. “But I know I want to spend it with you.” He bent to one knee. “If you’ll have me.”
As I looked down at him, I was more afraid than I had ever been. Commit to someone with a terminal illness? “Yes,” I answered. I, too, wanted to be with him as long as possible. Deep down, I also might have thought we could beat this cancer bitch, statistics be damned.
Life moved forward. We moved in together, a huge transition for any couple but especially for one dealing with cancer. We supported each other through two resection surgeries, three clinical trials, dozens of MRI’s and doctors’ appointments. We tried to marry, but various factors kept getting in the way. He wanted to do it quick and easy at a courthouse. I wanted our friends and family around. Both of our families had money and debt concerns. Plus, I’d never planned on changing my name if/when I got married, and Kaz was old school. “You can keep your name professionally if you want, but I’d be really disappointed if you didn’t take my name,” he told me.
Then, in November 2010, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him unable to work. Even more devastating, he could no longer ride the motorcycle, or walk without assistance. He sank into a deep depression. As his illness progressed more rapidly, my caregiver responsibilities and the pressure of dwindling time intensified. We started arguing. Whereas before I had always been the one waiting for him to catch up, now he rounded the corner of acceptance before me. I still refused to accept it, like a ship captain who keeps trying to steer a sinking vessel. At one point, I thought I would surely have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t leave.
Instead, I got a cold.
One day in late March 2011, my job sent me home because I was feverish. I walked into the apartment early and was surprised to find Kaz sitting on the couch fully dressed.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I feel weird,” he said.
His body was shaking like a leaf. I grabbed a blanket and draped it around his shoulders. “I’m so pissed we never get to hang out anymore,” he said. “Something always happens and we can’t just hang out. It hurts, it really hurts.” His gaze drifted up to the corner of the room. “I’m sorry, babe,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry…” his voice trailed off.
The doctors later told us if I hadn’t come home early, the seizures would have killed him. They still almost killed him, but the doctors worked hard to keep him alive, while I sat by his bed and prayed. Please don’t take him right now. Please let him wake up. Please don’t let it end like this. Please give us another chance. Please let us say goodbye.
Forty-eight hours later, he finally opened his eyes. I had never been so happy in my life.
“When are you going to be Mrs. Smith?” he asked in front of his team of doctors and his mother, who had just flown in from D.C. “Are you going to hyphen or not hyphen? I’m okay with second billing,” he continued.
My face flushed as everyone turned to look at me. “Let’s talk about it later,” I said quietly.
The next day, I was sitting on his bed massaging his hands with lotion while a young nurse changed the bags on his IV drip. Kaz looked at me intensely.
“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”
“I think so,” I smiled.
“I have never loved anyone as much as I love you. I have never wanted to marry someone as much as I want to marry you. I didn’t think it was possible.”
I heard the nurse sniffle behind me.
“I want you to be Mrs. Smith,” he said, ignoring the nurse.
“Then you have to get better,” I said.
Republished with the permission of Narrative.ly and the author.
Niva Dorell is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles. She is working on a memoir of her experience as a newlywed/widow, and writes regularly about grief, writing and her dog at ridingbitchblog.com. Follow her on Twitter @nivaladiva, Read her recent Modern Loss essay about friendship after loss here.