A True Story / Eric Valentine

June has anniversaries of some very important life events for me. On June 3, 1993 I graduated from UCLA. On June 4, 1994, I got married to my college sweetheart and witnessed my father have a stroke (literally) the same day. And June 5 is the birthdate of my wife who passed away from cancer at just 23 years of age. I can’t believe she’s been gone longer than she was old.

Lisa and I studied psychology together at UCLA, went to live and work in Japan together, and as 20-somethings battled through her chemotherapy sessions and the unfathomable pain bone cancer brings. We shared our first kiss on Valentine’s night 1992 and she took her last breath on Valentine’s night 1995. We had only three years together, but we were pretty much inseparable in that time.

I’ve tried to honestly investigate whether I think we’d still be together today had she not lost her battle with cancer. The romantic in me doesn’t want to fathom a reality where she and I would be exes, but a person can change a lot over the course of two dozen years and one of two marriages ends in divorce. Meanwhile, things in my life have always veered away from permanency. Jobs—including the ones I’ve enjoyed—have always ended on me, rarely by me. Relationships have never worked out. Friendships have had to end. I’ve moved seven times since being back from Japan. 

So the odds are, she and I would have changed too much to last. But my most honest conclusion is that we would still be together today. Here’s why.

“Change” is a loaded word. It implies a mere difference from before. Change can be nonlinear. One can change and then change back. One can change unintentionally. So I prefer to consider how she and I would have grown. Growth implies intentional development. It can be triggered by both negative and positive life events, but it strengthens and refines character. Couples work well when individuals inspire each other, not to change, but to grow. 

It all comes down to HOW the individuals inspire one another. Are they manipulating each other with anger or guilt? Are they communicating their needs and desires, hoping their partner catches on and realizing they may not? It’s that latter quality I think both of us had, but Lisa to the maximum degree. As passionate as she was, I saw her lose her temper just once. As perceptive as she was, she rarely triggered someone on purpose, and when she did, they usually deserved it. She knew how to say that soft, nourishing thing you weren’t expecting to hear in a harsh, loud world.

Lisa wasn’t perfect, but she was perfectly committed to emotional integrity and intellectual honesty. So I can’t fathom, especially after dealing with cancer together, an alternative reality where we could not have worked through whatever challenges would have come our way. I trusted her. And she had a way of speaking to my desire, not to simply please her, but to be my best self. 

Not a day goes by where I don’t think of her. And that’s not because I’m a hopeless romantic. Quite the opposite actually. Life presents real circumstances that require a humility to access a better part of one’s self, sometimes a template outside ourselves to help us aspire to something we currently are not. Lisa is that template for me, and I grow still today because of the quality time we spent together then.