In her 2014 Modern Love essay, “A Second Embrace, With Hearts and Eyes Open,” the writer Mary Elizabeth Williams tells the story of rekindling her marriage only to find out, shortly thereafter, that she had malignant melanoma. Suddenly, their future looked very different from their past.
Miya Lee and I recently caught up with four writers whose essays inspired episodes in the second season of the “Modern Love” television series on Amazon Prime Video. Below is my conversation with Ms. Williams, whose episode stars Sophie Okonedo and Tobias Menzies. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can also read my interview with writer, actor and director Andrew Rannells (“During a Night of Casual Sex, Urgent Messages Go Unanswered”) and Miya Lee’s interviews with Katie Heaney (“Am I Gay or Straight? Maybe This Fun Quiz Will Tell Me”) and Amanda Gefter (“The Night Girl Finds a Day Boy”).
Daniel Jones: Your essay was published seven years ago, and it was about events that took place years before that. Can you catch us up on where you are now with your marriage, your health and your family?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: My husband and I are still together. One of our daughters is in high school and the other is in college. Like everyone else, we’re just coming out of a long period of enforced closeness in a small New York City apartment where one person is working in one space, one person is working a few feet away, someone else is doing band practice and someone else is doing college work. It was all chaotic.
Over the past few years, we’ve had a lot of challenges and sorrows and difficult experiences involving our health and work and the health of loved ones. And it’s funny, because in the midst of feeling trapped over the past year, I still wake up in the morning and choose to be here with this person. Those moments of looking at someone and thinking, “Yeah, I’m here voluntarily” — maybe that’s not the sexiest thing to think about someone, but I also feel like it’s probably the most important.
How does it feel to write about something so personal, even as a writer?
The day I got my cancer diagnosis, I told very few people, and I even said to my husband, “I don’t think I’m going to share this because I don’t want it to change how people see me. That’s a bell I won’t be able to unring.”
The next day I went to Sloan Kettering, and that night I wrote an essay called “My Cancer Diagnosis” that was published in the morning. So less than 48 hours after I got diagnosed, I published my first essay about having cancer. Clearly, I don’t know how to not talk about my life.
What kind of cancer did you have?
Metastatic melanoma. Melanoma is a cancer of the skin, which is very common. Metastatic melanoma is not. That’s when the cancer has moved into your organs. And the thing about melanin is you have it everywhere, so the cancer can go everywhere. When you get it, it can be rapidly fatal. Typically, at the point I got it, you had about seven months to live. My cancer had moved into my lungs and soft tissue. You could see it on my body.
How was it treated?
First I had surgery. That was before it had spread. I had a big circle taken off the top of my head. Then, a year later, I had a recurrence, and by then the cancer was spreading everywhere and moving really fast. That was the point when my oncologist said, “We’re recruiting for a clinical trial. You should talk to the people on the clinical trial floor.”
They had just approved the first immunotherapy treatment for melanoma in over 30 years. To get accepted, I had to pass a bunch of tests; it’s really hard getting into clinical trials. It shouldn’t be. But I was fit and had a flexible schedule and met all of the requirements — you have to be sick but otherwise fit and not have done any other treatments. So I got into the trial, and I felt it working after the first treatment. I was cancer free the first time I got scans, 12 weeks later. And I’ve been cancer free for nine years.
In talking about your successful experience with the clinical trial, do you worry about giving people false hope?
I’m glad you brought that up. I am extremely aware that I am unusual. And I never want to give people false hope. I want them to have hope and to know there are options. But also, hope can be for different things, whether it’s in your relationship or your health, and sometimes you’re hoping for just a little more time. It’s like I always say: The mortality rate for being a human being is 100 percent. If you’re lucky, you can postpone that so you get more good stuff. And I hope you get to get more good stuff with the people you love and give them good memories and leave something better than you started it.
What was the impact of publishing your essay in Modern Love?
I got messages from so many people I hadn’t heard from in years, who didn’t know about the breakup, didn’t know I had been sick, didn’t know any of it, and were like, wow, you’ve really been through it. And then there was the response from readers who saw different parts of themselves — in the relationship, but particularly in the sickness, in that story of cancer. People seeing a love story of sickness that wasn’t gooey and sentimental.
You and your husband never divorced; you separated. Did that make stepping back into the marriage easier?
I guess if you look at it as stepping back, but I don’t. I look at it as stepping forward. That relationship ended. And what came next was different and new. For me, it was important to feel like I wasn’t going backward. This was about moving forward, about being in a different place in life and having different expectations and understanding and respect.
I wanted to tell a story that was about the kind of tender and unique love you see when things are awful. Unsexy situations like when he has to go out and buy you stool softeners. That’s a unique kind of romance. I hope that for men who read it, they were able to see themselves — and see that being caring and nurturing and capable is the most loving gesture in the world.
Daniel Jones is the editor of Modern Love. Mary Elizabeth Williams is a writer and the author of “A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science, and Cancer.”
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