I Fell in Love With a Dying Woman (article published at cosmopolitan.com)
"How do you describe to anyone how much a four-month relationship fundamentally changed you as a person?"
Mike Hughes fell in love with Carly four months before she died. Carly Hughes (they have the same last name) was just 23 when she was diagnosed with gastric-esophageal cancer. Mike, Carly's friend from college, came to visit her in the hospital. Those visits turned into all-night talks, a budding romance, and plans for the future.
When Carly passed away Feb. 17, 2013, Mike and Carly's mother, Irene Vouvalides, channeled their grief into a charity in Carly's honor. Carly's Kids Foundation benefits Holy Family School, a disadvantaged elementary school in Mississippi that Carly visited twice while she was studying education at Boston College. The foundation also raises money for digestive cancer research.
Mike shares his story about the joys of irrational love, learning to live with loss, and the importance of keeping Carly's memory alive.
When I first met Carly our freshman year at Boston College, I was a little bit afraid of her. Carly has always had a really strong personality. She is energetic, smart, beautiful, and she knew what she wanted — and pretty much always got what she wanted. I was still really shy at the time. We dated for about two weeks, but she ended up being too much for me.
But we remained good friends and hung out all the time. We became closer during our junior year. Her parents recently got divorced, and mine had just separated. We talked a lot about what we were going through. We could be sad, angry, and honest about everything because it was a shared experience.
During the summer before our junior year, Carly went on a service trip to Mississippi to volunteer at Holy Family School, which is the oldest African-American Catholic school in the United States. It was the type of school that didn't have a playground, new books, or even basic supplies. Carly fell in love with the students there, and she convinced me to return with her the following summer. It was one of the many times Carly would be responsible for opening my eyes to new things. I grew up in a bubble in Westchester, New York. Going down there to see kids with so little who are so smart and eager to learn was an amazing experience.
After graduation, I moved to New York City and Carly stayed in Boston. We kept in touch like friends do — Facebook, texts, phone calls. She called me when she came home from a family trip to Hawaii in July 2012. She was coming into New York City for a work trip and to visit a vascular surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center who was going to check out her legs, which had been cramping. She wanted to meet up after the doctor's appointment and grab coffee or something.
Later, I got a call from her mother, Irene, that she was going into surgery. They found blood clots in her ankles, and they had traveled to her lungs. Carly ended up having multiple surgeries to remove the clots. And then they found a tumor.
Her mother found out first, and she called me and our friend Mark to tell us it was cancer. I left work immediately to come to the hospital. Irene wanted us to be there when Carly found out so she'd have as much support as possible. It was a Friday night, two days before Carly's 24th birthday.
I went to every doctor's appointment that I could, and I spent a lot of time at her mother's house in New Jersey, where she was then living. Seeing Carly quickly became the thing I looked forward to most every day.
After a few weeks, our friendship started to feel different. We went to dinner and a movie, and there was a vibe in the air the whole night. We were kind of moving away from the friendship into something else, and we ended up kissing that night.
There's no rational way to convince yourself that starting a relationship with someone who was just diagnosed with cancer is a good idea. I knew it was crazy. This was the same girl who terrified me freshman year of college with her confidence, brains, and beauty. But now those traits drew me to her. What made it easier was that it was hard to tell that Carly was really sick. She was always bubbly, energetic, and positive.
We decided to see where things would go, but Carly established a rule right away: "We aren't allowed to fall in love until I am back in Boston and have beaten this stupid disease. Things can't get too serious before then." She felt like her life was on hold. I was worried about being a distraction. I wanted her to be focused solely on fighting the cancer.
We tried to take it slow, but we were spending more and more time together. It didn't take long for the walls that we had built around us to come down. We were already friends so we skipped all those awkward first-date conversations and talked about the intimate details of our lives. I remember one night we were going to see a movie in New Jersey. The first theater was closed. Then we drove to a second one, and the movie was sold out. Then we drove to theater in a mall across town. We were driving and talking for more than an hour. I just started laughing. It was no use. We were in it.
We kept the relationship secret from friends, and she refused to call me her boyfriend. It got frustrating at times, and we got into an argument about it on Christmas Eve. I left her house pretty upset. She sent me an email later that night. She said she was happier those past few months than she ever was. She felt more like herself when we were together. And she said, "I think it'd be wrong not to admit to myself that I'm your girlfriend."
When I told her, "I love you," she looked confused. Then she finally said, "That's fine. You just have to know I'm not ready to say that back yet." Three days later as we lay in her bed, about to fall asleep, I heard her whisper, "I love you too."
Things move a lot faster when you're in that situation. When you're sitting in the hospital room listening to doctors go over the plan for chemotherapy and radiation, the relationship has to develop a lot faster than it normally would.
By January, the cancer had spread, and she had surgery to remove her stomach. She was in recovery for two weeks at the hospital, and I spent most of my time there. A lot of people associate being at the hospital with being miserable and sad. But leaving work to spend three to four hours a day with Carly were the best parts of my days. Nurses came in and out, but we spent a lot of time watching movies, or taking walks around the hospital and just talking. We had so many little moments together that made us grow closer. Everything just felt so right.
I don't think she really knew the extremity of what was going on. I certainly didn't. When they first described it, they didn't put a stage on it. Then it was classified as stage three. Then stage four. It's like something you see in a movie where the doctor comes in and says, "You have three months to live." It didn't seem real. And Carly wasn't buying it. We never talked about the possibility of her dying. It was never an option for her. She is an extremely strong-willed person. There were times when she was scared, but not about dying. She was afraid of what she was sacrificing putting her life on hold for another year.
I had a trip to Africa planned with my father. We were going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Carly was starting another round of chemo just as I was scheduled to leave. I told her I would cancel the trip, but she wouldn't hear any of it. She told me, "This is something you have to do. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."
When I was climbing the mountain, Carly was with me. It was so hard both physically and mentally. But I kept thinking about everything she was fighting and how she remained positive, never once complained, and never felt sorry for herself. That pushed me. I couldn't have done it without her.
I was at the airport awaiting my flight home, and I felt a pit in my stomach. I was more homesick than I can ever remember being. I never imagined I'd miss Carly so much. My dad asked a man next to us to borrow his phone. My grandfather was very sick, and he wanted to check in before we boarded our flight home. I looked back at my dad and saw tears streaming down his face. I asked, "What happened? What's wrong with grandpa?" His eyes slowly rose from the phone, and he struggled to say, "It's not grandpa. It's Carly."
I crumpled to the floor as if I had been shot. Everything around me went blank, totally quiet. I couldn't even cry.
The thought never crossed my mind that Carly would die. I had just talked to her three days before, and she was her energetic self. She was talking about someone she met at chemo who had the same disease and was beating it. She was inspired. We talked about taking short vacations together, visiting her aunt in Vermont, and getting an apartment together in New York. At the end of the conversation, I said good-bye and she said, "No. It's not good-bye. It's see you later." And then we hung up.
Irene later told me what happened. Carly was at home when she collapsed in the bathroom, in her mother's arms. They called 911, and Carly died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
It was just four months between the time Carly was diagnosed and when she passed. I am such a better person for those four months. If I had known she was going to pass in four months, I would have done everything the same way. Even as devastated as I was, I had no regrets.
Maybe I wouldn't have gone to Africa. I still struggle with the fact that I wasn't there. I don't think I will ever completely get over that. Part of me is really grateful that I didn't see it happen because I may have been traumatized. But part of me wishes I could have been there for her in those last moments.
About a week after she passed, Irene and I started talking about doing something to honor Carly. Irene had become my second family. Sometimes we would take time together to vent our frustrations or show the emotions we were keeping secret from Carly. We were our own support group.
We wanted to put Carly's spirit to something good. We started talking about Holy Family School right away. Carly loved that place. Even when she was in the hospital, she was sending donations, and thinking about how she would go back again and help in some way.
Carly passed in February, and we had Carly's Kids Foundation up and running in May and started receiving donations within a month. One of our friends from college organized a team to run a marathon for the foundation. It went from two of us to 45 people, and we raised nearly $10,000 from that single event. Another one of our friends created the website. Most of Carly's close friends are involved in some way. It has been a way for us to channel our grief and give it a purpose.
What I love most about the foundation is that it forces so many of the people Carly loved to come together for a common cause. I'm not sure that would happen without this foundation. I want to stay close to these people, and I want to feel free talking about Carly, even when the memories are painful.
How do you describe to anyone how much a four-month relationship fundamentally changed you as a person? And how do you continue to be that person when the person who helped shape that is gone? I always thought love meant you cared deeply about the other person you were with. Carly showed me that it was more than that. It enables you to truly be yourself. It pushes you out of your comfort zone. It makes you uncomfortable, and it makes you irrational. It also does not die with that other person. It lives on and continues to inspire. It encourages you to keep pushing yourself and to spread that love to as many people as you can.