Clark and I met on the Thursday before Labor Day, August 30, 2007. I don’t know exactly when we first said I love you, but the first email exchange containing the phrase, which he casually includes before signing off, is dated October 3 of that year.
Nearly four years later, I sometimes type his email address in the search box in my Gmail. Hundreds of results pop up, and I’ll pick a few at random to read. The ease of our everyday interactions is what kills me. The way we spoke to each other about what I’d bring home for dinner or whether it was a PBR or a Grolsch kind of night. In nearly every conversation, there is something that releases the pressure from my chest by forcing a giant laugh.
Clark: did you eat?
Me: yes i had soup and chips but whatever someone else has smells delish
Clark: k just as long as you ate something
how do you spell Bodasifa?
from Point Break?
Me: let me look it up
it’s a buddhism thing
I can break down Clark’s illness into one diagnosis (metastatic melanoma), one prognosis (between 4 and 14 months to live), three surgeries, three clinical trials, seven hospital stays, three doses of chemotherapy, and five weeks of hospice care. The first surgery, a deep lymph-node dissection of the left groin, and its subsequent days-long hospital stay, spanned the first week of April 2008. The second surgery, which removed the cancer’s recurrence from underneath the tender flesh of the first, was June 11. He was hospitalized from November 11–19 and again from December 1–6. On February 20, 2009, he had emergency surgery to remove a tumor the size of a baseball from his gut. He started chemotherapy on April 15.
Me: i am sorry i wigged out last night.
Clark: oh baby do not say sorry
Me: i really was just exhausted! that’s obvious.
Clark: I totally understand
i know you were so tired and I know that you want
to make sure I’m going to be okay and safe
and really makes me want to cry
Clark: i feel the same way about you
I want to always want to make sure you are safe
and warm and comfortable
Clark: and I didn’t mean to yell but you are so stubborn
Me: no i know
haha SO ARE YOU, for the record
Clark died two months later. He was 33. I was 25.
I spent a lot of time after his death looking at photographs of us camping, at a friend’s wedding, with my family at our first Thanksgiving. I listened to “The Ocean” by Sunny Day Real Estate, the song he heard when he imagined me walking down the aisle at our wedding. I cried when Archers of Loaf, the one band Clark insisted make an appearance on any playlist, announced its reunion tour. I watched YouTube videos of his band, Statehood, scanning for hints of what his voice sounded like, afraid I’d already forgotten.
The memories of my life as Clark’s caretaker buzz in the back of my brain at a low hum. Two years ago, I was on autopilot when I changed his diaper or scrubbed the smell of urine from the armchair he sat and slept in. I didn’t question how I found the strength to support his crumbling frame as we hobbled to the bathroom. Without even thinking about it, I’d roll my jeans halfway up my calves and get into the bathtub to pull him up. I shaved his face and gave him his painkillers at perfectly timed intervals. I dressed him.
Now my breath quickens when the answer to a clue in my crossword, “Body fluid buildup,” is “edema,” the condition in Clark’s left leg that caused it to swell and dwarf his right. My eyes sting as I read a newspaper article describing the latest study to come out of a cancer conference, which involves a drug trial that Clark was too sick to participate in. I slink off to the bathroom with my head down, ignoring my friends at the bar, when I catch a glimpse of his obituary, which hangs on the back of a door at the Black Cat, the bar where we met.
I go looking for evidence of our partnership that’s not tied to a memory of me sleeping on two chairs pushed together next to his hospital bedside. My Gmail is a priceless hoard of us making plans, telling inside jokes, calling each other “snoodle” and “bubbies.” I type his name into the search field and enter a world of the unscripted dialogue that filled our 9-to-5 existence. I become immersed in the coziness of our union. In hundreds of chats automatically saved to my account, we express our love for each other readily and naturally in our own private speech. This is a history of our relationship that we didn’t intend to write, one that runs parallel to the one authored by his uncontainable illness.
Me: i love you :)
Clark: you do?
Me: yes more den anythin
Clark: I see
well, I’d say we have a problem because I
your love might clash with my love, resulting into
a shitstorm of unicorns, babies, puppy dogs, and
couples ice skating
it could get ugly
and tandem bikes
I remember the pharmaceutical names of his medications—amitryptyline, Zoloft, methadone. It’s only thanks to my archive of our Gchat conversations—me from my work computer, he from our apartment’s couch or his hospital bed—that I remember that we called gabapentin his “Guptas.” They were brown, like the skin of Dr. Gupta, his kidney specialist. The Dilaudid pills he took for breakthrough pain were “hydros,” a nickname for the drug listed on the label, hydromorphone hydrochloride. He’d imitate a surfer when asking for them.
Clark: man, my left leg is useless
I really hope this chemo helps
I can barely use it anymore
Me: i know
it will work.
Clark: figure I’ll notice there first
Me: you never know
Clark: when are you leaving?
can I get a nap in?
see you in like 45 minutes snoopy
Clark: cause i can’t seem to think of when I can get a nap in BEFORE practice cause when you get home I just want to hang with you
Me: yes, take a nap!
Clark: k i love you
Me: i will get gatorades and ensures. and be right home. love you.
Clark: LOVE YOU!
It was winter 2008 and Clark was taking part in a trial, his second, at the National Institutes of Health. It involved a drug called high-dose IL-2, which stimulates white blood cells to grow and divide in an attempt to overtake the cancer. The treatment has
a slim chance of success but it’s one of the only regimens approved specifically for melanoma by the FDA. Patients are typically bedridden with dizzying flulike symptoms and are uncharacteristically irritable or moody. Clark was no exception.
He had a high fever and soiled the bed again and again during his second IL-2 treatment. One time, after I held up his body so that the nurse could change the sheets, he shit as soon as I placed him down. During this stint at the hospital, the fourth dose of drug sent him mentally over the edge. He screamed at me and called me a bitch. I left the hospital in tears.
It was the only time during his illness that I elected not to sleep next to him. When I arrived at my friend Alyson’s, I had a text message from him that said, “You left me, so I’m leaving you.” Two hours later, he called me sobbing, apologizing. He barely remembered specifics the next day, but I still get a lump in my throat when I think about it. We had this conversation three days after we returned home:
Clark: you make me so happy
everyday is wonderful with you
Me: you promise?
Clark: not really
I’m just playing with your emotions
Clark: YES REALLY
In December 2008, Clark called my mother to apologize for the fact that I wasn’t going to be home to spend Christmas Day with them. I know it’s not uncommon for people my age to be away from their families during the holidays, but my mother, brother, sister, and I had never spent a Christmas apart. Clark and I opened presents at his mother’s house that year. My mom told him not to worry. “There’ll be plenty of other Christmases,” she said.
“Come on, Mom,” he said.
She told me this after he was gone, and it haunts me. Did he always know he was going to die, or did he think there was a chance? Did he believe me when I told him stories of the people whose tumors had shrunk to nothing, seemingly by magic? It was easier for me to play cheerleader; I wasn’t the one shitting the bed and gritting my teeth through the pain.
Clark: babies, did they say the next treatment is rough? like IL-2?
Me: the one they want to do to you?
Me: i don’t think anything compares to IL2.
but i think it is semi rough. i think it’s less puking, pooping, ill feeling and more weak, tired. however, IL2 has a really low success rate, the other treatment has a high one.
i was reading testimonies of people who have been cured by the treatment, this was a few months ago, and the one guy wrote that absolutely nothing compares to IL2.
Clark: i can’t stop crying
its hard to read the computer
i’m so happy
Me: yes baby
we are going to do it baby
Me: i’m so happy too
i know we are
Chemotherapy was our last-ditch effort to beat back the cancer. There was the tiniest chance that it would work. If all went according to plan, the chemo would shrink his tumors to manageable levels, and we’d return to the NIH to participate in a different clinical trial, the one with the best success rate.
Clark: I would go to my mothers
u can start having a life again
Me: baby, my life is being with you and fighting this cancer
that’s what it is
i do not resent you, and i never will|
i love you and we’re in this together
After three weeks of chemo, it was clear we were losing. Cancer had eaten away at his hip, attacked his spinal cord, and created a blockage in his large intestine that necessitated a colostomy bag. We then chose to stop trying to wipe out his disease and focus only on treating his pain. He lasted five more weeks.
Clark: dr. kitano called
Me: to say what?
Clark: email coming
um, the message said that she understands our concerns and thinks they are still able to provide us the original treatment and just wanted to talk to us more about it
Clark: um, she still wants us to keep the appt. on Tuesday
Me: oh my god
I close my eyes and hear him tell me through exhaustion and tears how much he’s going to miss me after he dies. How beautiful I look sitting by the window of his hospice room.
Me: got her email
oh my god
they’re going to do it
Clark: whenever Kitano does something totally rad i play that “Are you ready for the sex girls” song from Revenge of the Nerds in my head
tell her that.
Clark: i should make her a mix tape
Now I live with my best friend, Cella. Some days I go to send her a message, searching for her name and the colored dot that accompanies it. I’ll try her even if she appears offline, because I need to tell her I’ll pick up coffee on the way home or ask if I can open the wine she left in the fridge.
And there it is: his name is right under hers. I move the cursor over it, and the thumbnail pops up with all of his information. His address, clarkstatehood@gmail. com. His icon, a photo of Patrick Swayze from Road House. A little gray dot, just like the one next to Cella’s name. As if he’s just not available to chat at the moment.
Clark is offline.