I lost my favorite person, Alexandra Feldt—Alex—to ovarian cancer on Thursday, September 17, 2020. She was 34 and the love of my life. Part of me can’t quite believe it was 12 days ago because it’s unfathomable for me to be living in a world without my soul mate. Our relationship spanned two decades, and in that time, we were each other’s best friends, advocates, partners, cheerleaders, allies, and confidantes. A friend of ours recently told me that losing her older brother as a young girl felt kind of like the sun had gone out. Yes. And it opened into a gaping black hole. There’s this part of me that aches at her absence, and I know the world is diminished because she’s no longer physically present. But I know she wouldn’t want me to despair, and I know she would want me to carry on for her and for all of the people she loved in the life we built together.
If only you could have met her! Alex was kind. So kind. She was quick to smile and laugh (how I loved her laugh) and love, with this uncanny generosity of spirit. She made you feel special. Seen. Listened to. Meeting her for the first time felt like reuniting with a lifelong friend you hadn’t seen for a while. Geez she was cute. Ridiculously cute. She was dorky and weird and cool—preternaturally, only ever, her unique self. And she engendered that in others. She loved Depeche Mode and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she had this natural suspicion of things that too many other people liked (she must’ve really liked me, because I got her to read and love the entire Harry Potter series). She was exquisitely introverted, which made me feel a tad guilty, like I was somehow hoarding her or depriving people of her presence, but that’s how she wanted it. We enjoyed our little family trio—Alex, me, and our beagle, Fred, whom she complimented endlessly (take, for instance, Nine Inch Nails’ 2005 hit “All the Love in the World.” I’ll bet you didn’t know that song was about Fred. Yes, why does Fred get all the love in the world, indeed). Like I said, ridiculously cute.
Yet she fostered this magnificent community of friends and family. She’d been a vegetarian since age seven, and though a brief stint as a vegan freshman year of college couldn’t last (thanks cafeteria food), she tried again after graduation and became a proud vegan for the last 12 years. She loved animals, and her compassion and empathy extended to humans as well. We spent so many weekends and holidays hosting people in our home, first in Ann Arbor, then DC, then Urbana. She created delectable vegan feasts (she always said we cooked so graciously, so generously, like I had anything to do with it but prepping and clean up), and we’d play board games, walk Fred, or enjoy what our home cities had to offer.
She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 30, just under four years ago. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office with her, and it was as if this great crushing weight came down on us when we heard the test results. But we had each other. We had this immense superpower of our bond, our love, which could withstand anything. We drew strength from one another as she threw herself into research and aggressive medical treatment, undergoing chemo, extensive surgery, and more chemo. Still, Alex was kind. So kind. All of her nurses and everyone on her care team loved her. How could they not? I will never forget the resilience and resolve she displayed recovering from surgery. She impressed the whole hospital wing!
In some ways the cancer intensified our love. We never knew how much time we had left. Even in the midst of misery—sickness from chemo, pain, surprise ER visits and complications—Alex persevered. We had our love, the support of wonderful friends and family, and we had hope. It’s amazing what human beings can do with a little hope. But we were also human. Alex would be the first to tell you that, at times, she didn’t think she could do it. At times, she didn’t particularly want to do it. And that was okay. Cancer does seem to respond to positive attitudes in some correlative ways, but that shouldn’t for a second make patients like Alex, or caregivers and loved ones like me, feel shame or guilt for not being sunshine warriors. Cancer sucks, and it’s okay to feel miserable.
After her surgery and in successive years, Alex put up with a lot of depredations. We tried to use laughter to diffuse some of it—Alex was particularly fond of gallows humor, though my heart couldn’t quite take it when it came to joking about her death. She got used to caring for and maintaining appliances in her abdomen that kept her alive. I offered assistance and understood her rebuffs—she needed to uphold that bit of privacy and independence. We called one “Putel-jug Raspberry” (“DJ PJ Ras,” spoken in Tom Haverford’s voice) or just “PJ” for short, after a hilarious John Oliver bit involving Vladimir Putin and his fabricated personal recovery of an ancient vase. I swear, PJ could’ve been a sound mixer for Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. So many fantastic clicking and gurgling noises! Rationally Alex knew these devices were keeping her alive, but she never really stopped resenting them.
I guess that’s human beings, right? We can feel complex emotions, sometimes even contradictory ones, simultaneously. Take this whole convoluted message: it might seem disjointed—I’m grieving at the loss of the sun AND loving and laughing from memories of my wife?!—but I feel okay about it. I hate that Alex is gone. Part of me, like I said, rages at an unfeeling, unfair universe that burdened the love of my life with cancer. I still can’t really believe she’s gone. She was only 34! We had so much life ahead of us! I know she agreed. Nonetheless, the biggest part of me feels love and gratitude. Undying love for Alex and gratitude for all that she gave and shared with me—friends; family; enough memories for two lifetimes; the knowledge that this intelligent, beautiful, creative, kind, confident soul chose and loved me. Me! It makes me smile, it makes me laugh, it makes me cry.
This brings me to the end. Alex didn’t want to die; she loved life and sharing it with me and Fred and all of her loved ones (I cannot begin to tell you how much she wanted to vote and make it to our 10-year anniversary this Saturday. I also have a long list of books, TV shows, movies, video games, board games, albums, travel locations, conversations, and causes we were going to share together. Hopefully in another life). In the end, she had to go. The cancer progression was too much for her body to bear, and she was exhausted. She wasn’t in a lot of physical pain, but the mental anguish of losing strength and losing pieces of herself—the inability to cook, to stand, to go on walks, to give Fred and me the affection we so desperately loved—losing the ability to do the things that made her most happy, like caring for her family, was too much. I did everything I could to care for her, and her most ardent wish was that I be okay (I’m decidedly not okay, but I’m okay. Perfectly human). Before she left, her mom and I told her, on separate occasions, that we didn’t want her to suffer. As ever, the kind person she was (so kind), she listened.
I hate cancer. I hate it with all of the intensity with which I loved Alex. It doesn’t care how much you love someone or how young they are. This low-grade ovarian variety is near impossible to detect until it’s already stage 3 or later, and research on treatments lags because it’s a relatively rare form. I would give anything to have Alex back with us, and I would’ve gladly switched places. You all don’t know what you’ve lost now that Alex isn’t part of our world! It kills me to think of her gifts to the people in her life and the things she could’ve gone on to do, the things she would’ve gone on to do, if she hadn’t been taken from us. That is one of the reasons Alex co-founded STAAR (Strive. Thrive. Advocate. Advance Research.) Ovarian Cancer Foundation. I’m so proud of her and so glad to support this cause. With enough funds and a little luck, perhaps there can be an early detection test that will save young women like Alex from having to leave us prematurely.
I’ve thought a lot about Alex’s final moments, particularly when she tried to speak. During her last week of life, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to communicate. Between the dry mouth from meds, general tiredness, and progression of the disease, she couldn’t be as clear as she would’ve liked. In her last moment, she let out this brief utterance—maybe a dozen or so seconds, though it felt to me much longer. One imploring, sustained vocalization. I am now certain that she was trying to say, “I love you.” I love you too, Alex. I miss you. I am so lucky to have spent two decades in your company.