Ian got sick in the spring when the weather in New York was just warm enough to go without a sweater. It started out as a persistent cough, one that hurt his chest in a strange way. He had a presentation for an internship that week, part of his graduate program in journalism, and he was worried about it—the cough, messing him up. So he went to the NYU clinic, from which he sent me tweets about small animals doing funny things and texts complaining about the wait. From these texts, I understood that a nurse had listened to his chest and then drawn blood. A doctor appeared telling Ian he was ordering an MRI just to check something, just to be sure.
If I’d really been paying attention I would probably have started to worry then. Who gets an MRI for a cough? But I was working as a receptionist in a hair salon in Portland, Maine, and my shift went till 10 pm. Every time I wanted to look at my phone I had to pretend I had to pee, and it made all the WASPy old lady customers have to wait to check out, and the stylists would give me these little pointed stares that made me feel bad. So, I was a tad distracted. This was my third part-time job, which I did in the evenings. I was also working at a brewery and a sheep farm, which was meant to be the main job—the job that I was supposed to be writing about.
I wasn’t writing, really. I’d finished a few essays, but then winter rolled around and my full-time farm work shriveled up and shrank away to a few hours a week, hardly worth the gas money to drive out to Topsham. Spring comes later that far north, and though flowers were blooming in all the parks in New York, I was still routinely wearing mittens and a wool cap inside my 2001 Outback whose heater was broken, and if, by mistake, was turned on, made my car smell like burnt cat. Anyway, I had no money and nothing cures you of a writing habit faster than needing to eat.
One thing I was doing a lot of was knitting. For Christmas, I’d knit Ian a cardigan. It was deep blue, almost gray, with pockets and a shawl collar. The cardigan sported traveling cables across the entire body which met in mirrored triangular patterns over the back. The pattern reminded me of the little Zen sand gardens therapists keep on their desks, the way those tiny rakes make perfect curving lines that never cross. It had been our first Christmas together, and the sweater took me months. I’d get close to finishing and then notice some tiny error, a fumbled cable or slipped stitch, and rip out inches to go back and fix it.
There’s an old wives tale that persists among knitters—never knit a sweater for a man before you’re married, or else you’ll break up before it’s finished. I think this is probably a statistic that correlates only to how long it takes to knit a sweater, and how often non-knitters misunderstand the sheer amount of money and dedication it costs to make a garment by hand. But still, maybe I took my time because I was superstitious. I’m always worried something terrible is going to happen.
But then the cardigan came out perfect, and Ian wore it everywhere. He’d text me to tell me when his classmates complimented it, or when an elderly woman, another knitter, stopped him in Union Market to ask to touch the cuff of his sleeve. “Oh,” she’d said, “Someone must really love you.”
I was in Maine and he was in New York, and the cardigan was all the dinners we couldn’t cook together, the cups of tea I would’ve brewed for him, all the morning kisses and shared showers. I’d told myself that missing these things was okay, because I’d given him shelter from the cold, protection, and safety.
But, it was too warm in New York for sweaters when my phone rang. I was standing outside my apartment searching for my keys when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hi, Celia. This is Ian’s uncle, Eddy. His mom is driving to the airport now. Do you know what hospital they’re taking Ian to?” I told Eddy, whom I had never spoken to before, that I didn’t know. I said I thought Ian had been at the NYU walk-in clinic, and that I hadn’t heard from him for an hour or two. Eddy thanked me, and we hung up. Eddy had sounded so urgent, so on a mission, that I’d somehow forgotten to ask him what was going on. I called Ian, who answered immediately.
Apparently, in his bloodwork they’d found an abnormality, a marker of cancer. The MRI revealed Ian had a tumor the size of a tennis ball nestled between his lungs. The status of the tumor, whether it was cancerous or benign, was as of yet unconfirmed. Ian apologized for not calling me first, apologized that I’d found out something was wrong from Eddy. He hadn’t wanted to worry me yet, before he knew what was happening. They’d just moved him via ambulance to Lenox Hill, where they would run more tests in the morning. I was close to hyperventilating, gulping big cold swallows of air there on the porch. It was embarrassing that I should be the one losing it, but I couldn’t figure out how to get myself to stop.
In the morning, I called out of work and caught the 6 am bus, which deposited me, bleary-eyed and sleepless, in Manhattan. In a corner store, I stopped to search for a particular brand of blackberry seltzer, one that I knew Ian liked. They didn’t have it. I went to another bodega, and then another. Eventually, empty handed and late, I arrived at the hospital where Ian’s mom, Terry, was waiting for me.
When she looked at me I felt as if I was being assessed for a personality test. A high-stakes Myers-Briggs. Terry hugged me tightly, then pulled away.
“Celia,” she said, grabbing my shoulders, “We’re Ian’s team now. We cannot let him see us cry. If you need to cry, you just take a walk outside, okay?” I nodded. Terry continued, “We’re going to get to the bottom of this, we’re going to figure it out. We need to be a united front. Only positivity. It’s so mental, you know? There are all the studies. He can beat this if he believes he can, we need to show him we believe too.”
So much of cancer treatment, the language around it, the mythos, and “You are a warrior” balloons, is deeply absurdly funny. The kind of funny that you can only really laugh at with the dark hardened parts of yourself, the parts closest to the soft meat of your heart. Once, months later, when I was taking an Uber home from the hospital where Ian was meeting with his doctor, my Uber driver who, through a series of probing questions had surmised the situation, played me a Rascal Flatts song that he said he listened to when his grandmother was recovering from radiation. The song is about a young girl named Sarabeth who has cancer. Her one dream is to go to prom, and in the final verse, her date shaves his head to show his love for her. It’s a terrible song.
When I say that so much of cancer treatment is funny, I mean funny in the kind of way where you’re crying, against your will, in a Toyota Corolla to a Rascal Flatts song played by a stranger who thinks he knows how to help you. It’s the kind of funny where you’ve only met your boyfriend’s mom twice, and now she’s giving you a pep talk straight out of a Hallmark movie, the first step of which you’ve already failed.
We arrived upstairs, in Ian’s room, shortly before the doctor. I remember thinking if they don’t know what it is yet, why are we in the oncology wing? Across the partition, a Hispanic man who had just achieved total remission argued through the help of a translator with a representative from the hospital’s billing department. The translator kept repeating, “He says he only has 300 hundred dollars cash.” The air felt close and tight. Ian kissed me, and we pretended, all of us together, that we couldn’t hear the man weeping on the other side of the curtain.
When the doctor finally materializes, we are told Ian has late stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a lymphatic cancer. It’s in his chest, but also below his ribs in his stomach, and in other lymph nodes across his body. His PET scan is lit up with bright spots of disease, like paint splatters. The treatment requires an aggressive course of chemo which will take months. They cannot irradiate the tumor, or cut it out, as it is too close to the delicate web of his lungs. Ian will likely need to take a leave of absence from journalism school, and because he has no support network and no family in New York, move.
Terry, who is a career CEO and can be very frightening indeed, made phone calls. Within twenty-four hours, it was settled. Ian’s primary oncologist would be a doctor named Alison Moskowitz at Memorial Sloan Kettering, who was an expert in Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and pioneered a radical treatment called ABVD, which would theoretically lessen the percentage of the cancer returning, once it was gone. Under her supervision, Ian would undergo treatment in Dallas, Texas, where his parents lived in a well-groomed suburb called Southlake. He would start chemotherapy now, and move in a week.
Terry booked Ian appointments at a sperm bank, to prepare for the high possibility that treatment would leave him infertile—a fact which I’d somehow never absorbed in my general education on the terror cancer drugs can wreck on a body. In our hotel room that night, Terry promised me she would save Ian’s sperm for me, so that we could have kids. It was too much. I wanted to laugh or maybe scream. No one tells you how to grieve for something you have never really let yourself think about. How to grieve a loss that isn’t really yours, or was only yours in daydreams and vague what-ifs.
I had to go back to Maine. I had to pay my rent and go to work. At my brewery job, I poured beer, and at the hair salon I ran credit cards and printed receipts. I wondered what I was doing there if I wasn’t writing? On my breaks, I knit Ian a slouchy hat, thinking he might wear it once his hair was gone. I chose mohair and alpaca, two strands held together both deep shades of green, and the fabric they created was infinitesimally soft and haloed. The yarn was fifty dollars. A ridiculous expenditure for a hat, but I didn’t care. The hat was something to do, a preparation to take.
A few weeks later, I moved to Texas. My mom was worried about me. She wasn’t sure I was making the right decision. It’s just so hard, she kept saying. It’s going to be so hard. Still, I packed away my work-clothes: the overalls that would always smell like sheep-shit, and my heavy mud-caked boots. Ian and I settled into the top floor of his parents’ home, our room already decorated in heavy blue velvet, the furniture a gleaming white— decor that made the room, for the seven months we lived there, perpetually feel like a hotel.
The summer in Texas is hotter than you can imagine. The temperature is regularly over a hundred degrees, and the asphalt outside of the supermarket, when you exit your car, seems to bend and warp in the sun. There are lizards there, which I’d never seen before outside of a pet-store or a zoo. It is so hot in Texas, you cannot knit. You cannot fathom holding yarn in your lap. The only thing you can do is be like the lizards in the yard, sunning yourself on the steaming terracotta stones that surround the pool, and try not to think about anything.
Ian’s mom, through her network of connections, found me a job writing copy for one of her business associates. It was easy work that paid well and didn’t take me much of the day. The rest of my time, I spent accompanying Ian to appointments, looking away as they drew his blood or accessed the port in his chest.
Suddenly, everything was different, even Ian and me. We were uneasy together. Ian wasn’t used to being taken care of, and I wasn’t used to knowing when to stop fussing. Texas was unlike anywhere I’d lived before. I’d grown up on the East Coast, first in Boston, and then Portland after I graduated college. They were both cities in which I lived relatively close to my neighbors, in neighborhoods brimming with bakeries and record stores. I could walk to get coffee or run along the water. In Texas you couldn’t walk to a coffee shop—in fact you couldn’t walk anywhere, and driving was a terrifying proposition on roads with more lanes than I could comprehend. In the outer suburbs of Dallas, there’s no water to speak of, and the sunsets stretch out strangely along flat expanses of cattle ranch and tall grass.
Ian lost his hair, then his eyebrows, and one day I woke up, rolled over, and his eyelashes were gone. The steroids they put him on made him gain weight, and the chemotherapy hurt his stomach. The sharp contours of his face became soft and blurred. His clothes didn’t fit, and he chafed at his mom’s suggestion of buying new shorts and shirts. He was bloated and uncomfortable, and often, understandably, angry and depressed. We had no idea if the chemo was working, because there was no way to know until his next PET scan at the end of his treatment. I wanted him so desperately to touch me. It’s not that I even really wanted to have sex, but sex just seemed like the easiest way to get what I was after. We would be our old selves again, and I could simply exist, feel skin and sweat, and be held. But I was ashamed for wanting so badly, for needing so much from someone who had nothing to give.
We didn’t fight, but maybe it would have been better if we did. Fraught silences seemed to find us in whatever room we went to. We were cooped up, and terrified to leave the house. Ian’s white counts were so low that sitting too close to a kid with the flu at the movies could be deadly. I wiped down chairs and counters and tables of restaurants with Clorox wipes I kept in my purse, and I made us leave dinner if a stranger coughed too close.
Months passed and we started to iron out the kinks. We got better at reading each other, these new versions of us. I learned the ways Ian wanted to be cared for, and I let him take care of me in the ways that he could. Ian drove me to yoga classes in the early dewy morning, and showered me with stupidly expensive green juices from the organic market when he picked me up. At night we watched old reruns of home decorating shows, as I rubbed Ian’s temples in small circles with my thumbs. When we slept, he enveloped my body with his, my back pressing into his stomach, his childhood dog at the foot of the bed. We ate chilaquiles for breakfast, and Texas barbecue for dinner. I started to love Dallas and all of its unwieldy sprawl, loved the way it smelled there after the rain, and the black cows in the pasture down the road.
That Christmas I didn’t knit Ian a sweater, I didn’t have time. At his last check-up, his doctor had delivered the news we’d been waiting for. Ian was almost cancer free. He had a couple rounds of treatment left, but the mass in his chest was smaller and no longer active. The cancer cells in his stomach were gone. He could finish up his course of chemotherapy, and go back to school, if he wanted.
Life was resuming in a way neither of us had ever really thought would happen. Over the holidays, I interviewed for jobs in New York, eventually landing a gig at a PR firm in Chelsea. Ian was finalizing his class schedule, and we both started to look for roommates. I wanted to make New York my own, on my own. I wanted to meet Ian in the city for dates again, and I wanted to miss him in my bed when he wasn’t there. I wanted my own bedroom in which to write.
In February, I got an apartment in Bed-Stuy with my old roommate from college, and my high school best friend. My cousin, the same age as me, lived a few blocks away. Ian moved closer to Manhattan, to Brooklyn Heights, with one of our mutual friends. That summer Ian’s hair started to grow back. I took the C or the A to his apartment, walking from the brutalist Jay-St Metrotech to his tree-lined street. We made margaritas and drank them on Ian’s roof, looking out at the water where the ferry chugged noiselessly across the river. We met friends for Toki highballs in their financial district lofts, and held hands on the subway. My roommates and I watched scary movies, ordered egg and cheese on sesame bagels, and played the same Bjork record over and over in our kitchen as we danced.
In the fall when the weather began to chill, Ian pulled out his cardigan from his closet. It was now tight across his shoulders, and hung strangely as it stretched over his frame. It didn’t fit now, knit for a body that had been sick though we hadn’t yet known. I offered to knit another cardigan, but Ian suggested starting anew. We decided on a classic fisherman’s sweater.
I took Ian to the tiny craft store near his house, and explained the breed properties of certain sheep. We touched the rows and rows of yarn nestled neatly in their cubbies. I held a skein up to my nose and breathed deep, smelling lanolin and grass. Ian chose and I bought twelve balls of an undyed cream, the color of rolled oats.
The pattern for the sweater was beautiful with honeycomb cables across the front, bookended by strands of twining braids. The dense cabling made the fabric thick and warm, and the fiber of the sheep created a natural water-proofing that would trap the body’s heat close on cold winter days. There was something right about knitting such a traditional sweater, one lovers have been making for their partners for a thousand years. Old Irish families had their own cable motifs, specific to their clan, that they safeguarded and passed down from generation to generation. I don’t know my own, or if the Irish parts of my family ever had a pattern. But I imagined I might be beginning one, writing Ian’s and my story in the careful crossing of stitches.
I finished the sweater on Christmas morning at 5 am. In the dark blue dawn of my parents’ living room while everyone slept upstairs, I wove in the ends. Perhaps this sweater could not protect Ian from harm in the way I had thought his cardigan would, but it could clothe his changed body, dress each arm in warmth, hug gently his chest and stomach. I hoped it would remind him of my love, of our shared hardships, and the ways in which we learned to help each other through them. I wrapped the sweater in newspaper and ribbon and placed it underneath the tree, eager to return upstairs and take my place in bed beside Ian, where I knew, even asleep, his arms would encircle me and pull me close.
Celia Cummiskey is currently pursuing her MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Crossing Stitches” is her first publication. She lives in Richmond, VA.