"I Kicked Breast Cancer's Ass" Part 3: Why I Called My Ex

Shirley RodriguezBy Sofia Quintero

Sofia Quintero is a Puerto Rican-Dominican author, filmmaker and educator and most recently, cancer warrior. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012.

I remember what my naturopath told me two weeks before the mastectomy. Your immune system is actually quite strong she said, her hand still holding my pulse. For you this disease is emotional. It's about learning to trust again. I instinctively knew she was right. My treatment plan had to include the medicine of forgiveness-of both myself and others.

In the midst of battling this disease-a mastectomy, haircutting, and chemo treatments-I find myself closer to my ex, Doc. He is among the first people I tell days after my diagnosis; our two-hour conversation is the first telephone call we have since our breakup five years ago.

Related: "I Kicked Breast Cancer's Ass" Part: The Diagnosis

We met on a dating site in August 2006. After two months of intense correspondence, Doc and I had cappuccinos and tiramisus at Edgar's Café. Our conversation ranged from the intellectual to the intimate and ran over four hours. We agreed that we were at a point in our lives where we would much rather be happy than right.

Then we immediately broke that commitment to ourselves and to each other. The infatuation ended after our first fight over the holidays. This was not the stuff of toilet seats and toothpaste caps. It was volcanic, thick with emotional sediment.

And it got worse.

Our once comfortable silences became so oppressive that my body ached. When I bolted the following spring, Doc revealed the nerve-wracking secret he had been keeping for three months. A woman from his recent past had sent him cryptic texts suggesting she was pregnant with his child.

Related: "My Boyfriend Is Acting Distant"

Even though we were already broken up, it got worse. Our histrionics made a telenovela look like Masterpiece Theater. I didn't recognize Doc. Or myself. And yet this is who we became.

Post-mastectomy, I am fascinated by who closes ranks, keeps their distance or even fades away. Facing 144 days of chemo, I was determined to thrive and that meant having good company during my infusions. My best friend Elisha organized my chemo buddies, and one volunteer is Doc. It moved me deeply that he would offer to support me in this way. He's the only man whose last name is not Quintero who has.

After three years of no communication, Doc and I exchanged several long emails, taking turns shouldering the demise of our relationship. I confessed how my fear of abandonment compels me to leave as soon as love gets messy, which it inevitably does. And I apologize. But when all is said and done, can we truly be friends? Doc says that it's only a problem for him to the extent that it's an issue for me.

Before this correspondence, I'd just finished reading Conscious Loving by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks. When I read, "It's not that love doesn't work but that it works so well it brings to the surface issues that couldn't be gotten to any other way," I immediately thought of Doc. Perhaps even though we are not a couple, our healing work with each other remains undone.

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The day before his turn as my chemo buddy, he texts asking if he can bring his little girl. "Ultimately, I'm guessing this is not the ideal moment," he writes, "but then you seem to be managing in a much more upbeat way than one might expect."

My impulse was yes. I would have chosen different circumstances to meet my ex-boyfriend's daughter for the first time, but I have learned that we rarely know what are the ideal conditions for the unfolding of our desires. "As long as you feel it will be cool with/for her," I responded "I'm game."

When I arrive at the infusion center, Doc and T are waiting for me in my favorite corner facing the Hudson River. She's just as I expected - 44 inches of brilliance in a light green sundress and thick moños. I sing-song, "I'm so happy to meet you." T shies way from me, burying her face in Doc's cargo pants. I should've worn the wig I thought to myself.

There are three empty chairs, two beside each other and one across from them. "We should sit," I say presuming she wants to sit next to her father and not the strange lady with the Kool-Aid smile and no hair.

"No!" says T. Then she reaches for my hand. "I want to sit next to you." I break the Guinness Book of Records for longest exhale.

Women undergoing chemotherapy often refer to the infusion seat as the Big Girl Chair. Ironically, T wants to sit in it next to me. I laugh and text the BFF when T cuts her eyes at the nurse who insists that she steer clear of the IV stand connected to the subcutaneous port under my right arm. Aw, she's protecting you my bestie responds. Once the nurse leaves, T nestles into the chair on my left, and we embark on all kinds of silliness while Doc takes pictures. To be in this vulnerable circumstance and feel protected by a child -this particular child- how can I not trust?

Later as we wait for tenders and sliders at Locksmith's in the Heights, T breaks out a card-making kit, and we get to work. We have many loves in common: Crafts. Pretzels. Birds. Chocolate. Doc. I smile at him and ask, "How are you feeling?"

Related: Fighting Breast Cancer My Way

He grins and nods. "Comfortable." A sophisticated and precise word yet clearly the little boy in Doc has joined us.

By the time Doc brings me home after 10PM, some of T has rubbed off on me. Taking his hands in mine, I order, "Kiss my head." He obliges. I blow a kiss at T who is fast asleep in the back seat.

"I fell in love with her," I tell my therapist four days later. "I knew I would. And when I posted the pictures, people started emailing me saying You look like a family."

"And how does that make you feel?"

I start to cry. Not because we are not a family but because to qualify our friendship with "just" or "only" after all that has transpired seems like spitting in the face of God. I cry because my willingness to stay present amidst the messiness that is love is a sign that I'm healing in all ways. I trust again. "Blessed," I say. "So blessed."

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