My tiger

In 2002, I was a junior in college, and I met Chris, a senior, with whom I would spend the next several years in love.

Within a few weeks of meeting, I decided to take the remainder of the fall semester off from school and go home to Albuquerque, due to my first serious bout of depression. Chris’s and my relationship moved from working together at a coffee shop and hanging out once in a while to writing emails to each other, and then handwritten letters to each other, and eventually calling each other.

One of the things we had in common was that we were both lovers of fiction. We were both readers and writers. So we spent a lot of time writing to each other about books. I asked Chris for recommendations of what I should read while I was at home, recuperating.

The first book Chris recommended was Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I bought a copy of it from a local bookstore and read it. It was whimsical, I thought. The story was about a young Indian boy, Pi, who spent 227 days stranded in a lifeboat with a bunch of animals from his family’s zoo, specifically a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It’s an exploration of spirituality and life questions. I asked Chris what he liked about it.

“The idea is that everyone has a tiger in their lifeboat,” Chris explained to me, via email. “It’s the thing in your life that will probably kill you, but you have to face, alone, and either tame or succumb to.”

His tiger, he told me, was cystic fibrosis.

He was born with the disease, and he knew it would kill him eventually, just not when, or exactly how. He wrestled with it every day, through medications, lifestyle changes, and even just awareness of it. It was not something he could forget, at least not for long, but it was also not something he wanted to define his life.

I was 20 years old when we met, and rather glib about terminal illnesses when I look back on it. Surely, I thought when he told me he had the disease, there were cures for cystic fibrosis. It was one of those childhood diseases you heard about when studying genetics in high school, or that came across your line of sight from time to time as a minor plot point in a TV show. You probably had a friend of friends who had CF when you were in elementary school, if you didn’t have a friend who had it. It was manageable, I thought, if not curable. Like sickle cell anemia, or type I diabetes: something kids were born with but learned to live with.

But Chris knew his future to some extent. When he was born, the doctors had told his mother not to get too attached. When he was a toddler, his life expectancy was kindergarten. When he was in middle school, they thought he’d live maybe to go to college. And when he was in college… early adulthood seemed to be his last stop. “I can pretend that some day I’m going to be 60 and enjoying an afternoon on the golf course,” he told me, “but that’s probably not the case.” 40 even seemed like an outside chance.

He had a genetic variation of the disease that was rare enough to make him last in line to be cured, even if scientists found a cure for CF in general. When he was young he was relatively symptom-free, with occasional infections that merited an antibiotic-fueled stay in the hospital. He played soccer and baseball and lived a mostly normal kid life. Daily management included breathing in aerosolized medications day and night through a nebulizer, as well as taking enzymes to supplement digestive juices missing thanks to his non-working pancreas with every meal.

By the time we met, he had a feeding tube in his stomach to keep weight on through “night feeds” (which he hated), and several different nebulizer treatments he rotated through. Technology had increased his treatment options, and his digestive enzymes had changed, as well as his IV antibiotic treatments, which were now mobile. But his lung capacity was decreasing over time. He knew, and his family knew, that once it got to a certain point, he would need a lung transplant. And that there was no way of predicting whether that would “cure” him or simply open a new brand of illness to contend with.

I didn’t understand how much his illness would affect me. Already a sensitive person geared toward melancholy and with a litany of anti-depressant medication thrown my way, I ill advisedly ignored his imminent demise and insisted on being in love with him. People always told me I was courageous and brave when they found out I was seriously committed to a man with a terminal illness, and I scoffed at them. Of course I loved him. How could I not?

His disease, I told him early on, was just part of who he was, something he’d had no choice in, the same way I was born a twin and had half the presents at birthdays. If he hadn’t been born sick, I told him, maybe we wouldn’t have been as attracted to each other. Maybe he wouldn’t have been as interested in books or writing. Maybe he wouldn’t have been as sarcastic. Maybe he wouldn’t have been my type.

But as the years went by and we tried to stay in love and stay together, it got harder for me. He was a 24-year-old who lived life like a 70-year-old. Death was on our doorstep, all the time. He had been aware of it his whole life; I was not used to it. Outwardly, I was accepting of his lot in life; we couldn’t travel often; he couldn’t join me on runs; he couldn’t really go camping (until the portable nebulizer was invented, and even then, we were already in a rut of not-camping); he had an extremely difficult time breathing when we went home to Albuquerque to visit my family. Inwardly I spent my young adulthood in a perpetual battle between wanting to be young and do things young people did and wanting to be cognizant of the impending death of my beloved.

I stayed in the hospital with him, whenever he had to stay overnight, conservative nurses be damned. I insisted on getting us a pet rabbit, with whom Chris immediately fell in love. I pushed ahead with our life to live and acted like the illness was just a side issue, nothing too serious.

Chris with our bunny, Vonnegut

But I was terrified, all the time. I would wake up in the middle of the night to listen to the rattle of his breathing and make sure he was, in fact, still breathing. When my twin sister got married, as she was making her vows of eternal fidelity, I thought how stupid it was to assume you would have someone forever, because your love could be taken away from you at any time; they could be hit by a bus or get the flu or die of cancer in front of your eyes. It was a horrible, pessimistic way to feel. But I felt that way about my friends, too. I felt that way about everything — I was just waiting for it to be taken away from me.

I didn’t acknowledge how weak I was, and I couldn’t ask for help. So I acted out in other ways. I drank a lot. (So did Chris.) I cheated on him, looking for youth and health and wellness and anything that wasn’t the life I really lived. We broke up and got back together more than once over the six years we were together. Regardless of how I acted out, I loved him, and needed him. We connected on a level that was impossible to recreate, or explain.

Part of this connection was because he was a much bigger adult than anyone I’d ever met, because he had to be. Being aware of and constantly battling his tiger from an early age had made him highly attuned to what he wanted out of life. He knew, viscerally, that he didn’t have time to spare or waste. He made intentional choices in ways 20-year-olds outside of war zones don’t have to.

He dealt with my depression. He sat with it. When I couldn’t sleep (which was often), he told me stories until I could drift off. He bought me flowers. He made us go to concerts even when he didn’t feel well. He sent me things to read. He folded my laundry when I was busy. He helped me apply to grad school. He made inside jokes about some of my teachers for us to laugh at. He cried with me when I was sad. He supported me through loss. He loved me in the ways I needed to be loved. Part of why I couldn’t consider leaving him was because I needed him.

A few weeks into our email relationship, when I was still in Albuquerque, I bought him a tiger button from a quirky store in town and sent it to him as part of a Christmas care package. For years he wore the button interlaced in his shoelaces. Eventually he had it made into a ring, and it was the only piece of jewelry he ever wore when we were together.

Chris at my MFA graduation party, with the ring on his right hand

We broke up for the last time in 2008. I moved away from him, back to Albuquerque, in 2009. He had a lung transplant in 2010. I went to visit him in Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend. He was supposed to be out of the hospital then, and we were supposed to spend the weekend around Philly, touring the art museums and maybe even going for a run. But a complication had thrown him back in the hospital. I spent the weekend hanging out with his parents, and visiting him. He was annoyed at his situation, and short with me.

It was strange to me to be staying in his apartment and not in the hospital with him. I saw his new running shoes in his closet. I felt that this had been a weekend where we would either fall back in love or part forever. We didn’t fall back in love. It was over.

We didn’t talk for a long time. I assumed he hated me. I had wasted his time, and wasted his life. In spite of the hiccup over Labor Day, the lung transplant had thrown the tiger of CF out of Chris’s lifeboat, and he had a new life to move on to, without me. I tried to move on with my life, too.

In 2012 he wrote me a letter to say that he was giving up on the new lungs. His body was rejecting them. He’d decided to quit taking the suppression drugs and let his body die. I planned an emergency trip up to visit him in New Jersey. He had a new girlfriend by then. She was not interested in meeting me, which I understood.

In November he called me again to say goodbye for the last time. I couldn’t understand what he said because I was on a crappy connection and he didn’t have any breath to say things with. I asked if he wanted me to come up and he told me no, that wouldn’t be fair to his new girlfriend. I didn’t go to the funeral out of the same deference. I wasn’t his life anymore. I mourned alone. No one around me understood or had any patience for it.

I asked his mother after the news of his passing if she had seen the tiger ring. It was the only thing I wanted. Even looking at pictures of him on Facebook made me feel as if I were being burned by a brand. Any reminder of him hurt to look at. But I wanted the ring. She told me she hadn’t seen it. I thanked her and let it go.

One of the problems with being depressive and sensitive is that, in the absence of input, my head automatically inserts negative explanations for the void. It occurred to me that Chris might have thrown the ring away, disgusted with the thought of me. I thought, of course, he hated me. Why would he ever keep any reminders of me? I had been awful to him. His girlfriend didn’t want to meet me. His friends, in their silence toward me, must have hated me, too. Surely he had told them all just how awful I had been to him, and in their loyalty to him — which I clearly lacked — they hated me.

The weight of this realization wore me down.

My tiger is depression. I have fought it with drugs, and therapy, and diet, and exercise. I have fought it with self help books. I have fought it by moving towns, quitting jobs, leaving boyfriends, staying with boyfriends, committing to ideas. I have fought it by joining sports leagues and spending more time in the sunlight. Often I have succumbed to it by staying in bed for days at a time. I have let it have its way in my life by taking too many painkillers, or drinking all the time, or pushing people out of my life. I have let it ravage me with weight loss, weight gain, and attempts at suicide. When the tiger growls, it tells me that I am worthless, meaningless, talentless, unlovable, and doomed. I know it will probably kill me one day. Some days it’s a little cub I can look at and laugh at a little bit. Some days it’s a ravenous monster I can’t stand up to.

Knowing Chris hated me made my tiger enormous. I had been a complete letdown to the only person who ever loved me or understood me. I had been a failure. There was no recovery from that. There was no way I could love again, knowing I had the capacity to cause so much meaningless damage. I lived with this burden for a long time, silently, because there was no one to share it with. Asking his friends or family if he hated me would be a surefire way to learn that, yes, in fact, he did. Limbo was safer. Guessing it was true and owning that was better than knowing it was true.

His mother emailed me a few weeks ago — she’d found the ring, and if I sent her my address, she’d mail it to me. And suddenly there was a break in the clouds.

To me, having the ring is a reminder that he didn’t hate me, at least not always, and not totally. Chris understood my lifeboat and my tiger, better than anyone else. He accepted things I couldn’t accept. He wouldn’t throw that away. He might not wear it every day, but he wouldn’t toss it aside.

I wear the ring now to remind me to have courage, and that seeing and naming the tiger is as important as fighting it. Some people never name or tame their tigers. I was lucky enough to have someone see mine, and to see someone else’s, and to watch how to fight it gracefully. I hope someday to learn to be as brave as Chris was, which for me will mean looking at the history of our short life together and really seeing it for what it was, as a mix of good and bad times, and happiness and sadness, and not just one big negative chunk of time that I ruined.

February 20 will always be a hard day for me. Five years after Chris’s death, I still have to go cry in the bathroom throughout the day. The memories his friends and family post on Facebook leave me feeling ravaged and left out and alone. A lot of times I regret everything and wish I’d never met him. I still have a hard time remembering that there were good times that were worth having for both of us. The tiger ring helps me remember to fight to see that, instead of listening to the actual tiger telling me I was a failure and bad person and I’ll never be any different. Sometimes the tiger can be neutralized, and take a nap. I’m learning to tame it that way. I’ll never throw it over the side of the boat, but I can make it lie down and keep quiet. I have to forgive myself, and forgive Chris’s tiger, and forgive Chris. We did love each other, even if our tigers kept us from being together. It’s worth remembering.

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