Breaking the Glass

Illustration by Giselle Potter

A week after Guy and I printed our wedding invitations, we got a rude shock — an uninvited guest was trying to crash our nuptials.

Her last name was Melanoma, and her first name was Malignant, which is just about as bad as it sounds. When the doctor gave me my diagnosis, I took a very deep breath and haven’t stopped taking those breaths through two surgeries and three scars, one month of draining lymph fluid, and many therapy sessions in which the words “matrimony” and “mortality” kept creeping into the same sentence.

This is just wrong and unfair and how could the timing be worse, Guy and I kept saying to each other. In one minute, our future seemed to shrink from a bright wide sky to a single dark dot on the horizon. Dawn and dusk might belong on the same line in poetry but not in the prose of daily life. Yes, life is filled with change, but, please, can’t the change come later, come milder, come in a sleek white carriage instead of a lurking dark van?

We kept up appearances, always focusing on the upcoming festivities and never using the world “fatal,” which my doctor used once when she explained that she hoped all the cancer was gone but everything was far from certain and there’s this vampire-like thing called “risk of recurrence,” a concept that for the life of me I could not integrate into any of the billions of healthy cells in my body.

I tried to tell myself that “risk of recurrence” was nothing more than a veiled threat at a cellular level — something like my mother-in-law deciding she liked me so much she would come to visit again, and never leave.

A veteran of the Israeli army, Guy had brushed up against death more than once. He knew what it felt like to be shot at; some of his friends would never make it to the marriage canopy. None of it prepared him for this.

There was never any doubt about one thing. Our wedding would go forward. We’d been together for 14 years, and the ceremony was really an acknowledgment of our relationship, not the beginning of something completely new.

And yet, after 56 years of trying to get truly comfortable in my own skin as a gay man, how ironic that it was my skin that ultimately betrayed me. How could one dark spot on the middle of my back cloud an entire life?

No, we weren’t setting a seat for Melanoma at our wedding. But we still had to plan the ceremony. I told the rabbi everything. This needs to be about joy, I bravely offered, not fear. When we discussed the final act — the breaking of the glass — I noted that life is filled with shatterings, only some of which we can control.

Jews view the breaking of the glass in different ways. For some, it symbolizes the fact that each simcha, each joyful occasion, must also bear a painful memory from the past — in this case, the destruction of the Second Temple. Others believe the broken glass should be saved, fashioned into a mosaic and framed, a reminder that the couple must constantly work to bring their relationship into a place of wholeness. Still others claim the broken glass represents how we must first be broken open by heartache in order to fully connect with connubial bliss.

I prefer Guy’s interpretation. On the atheist kibbutz where he was raised, breaking the glass symbolized the break between your single life and your married life. You must shatter your singledom before you can embrace your coupledom. There are no religious overtones here, no need to stand in the shadow of death before entering the halls of happiness.

As for Melanoma, she had to wait at the door. If she had tried to break it down, 120 wedding guests, including several veterans of the Israel Defense Forces, were there to resist. She couldn’t pick the lock, either. That danger, I believe, has been firmly vanquished by a brash surgeon wearing sparkling white armor. Our ceremony began and ended with joy. The limousine awaited, not the hearse.

On our wedding day, everyone was thinking about the guest who wasn’t invited. But I was thinking about her as the intruder we didn’t let in.

Michael M. Appell teaches at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.