Four years ago, at age twenty-four, I was in high spirits because my boyfriend was about to finish his last trimester of college and move to the city where I live d so that we could begin thinking about our future. We had met in high school and had spent most of our relationship living two hundred miles apart. Everything seemed to be going well, except that the back of my boyfriend’s neck had been hurting him for a few months. It kept getting worse, but the doctors reassured us that it was only an infection or an inflamed lymph node. On April 6, he received the call. It was nasopharyngeal carcinoma. At age twenty-two, he’d been diagnosed with cancer.
I happen to live thirty minutes away from the hospital that his doctor highly recommended for treatment. I insisted without hesitation that my boyfriend live with me and that I be his primary caregiver during treatment. The actual treatment would last only two months, and because he was young it was expected that he would tolerate the high levels of radiation and chemotherapy relatively well. As it turned out, he was extremely sick, not only during the treatments but for three months thereafter, because he could not tolerate his pain medication.
Through it all, I regularly received cards, letters, and money from members of the church in which he grew up. I considered myself agnostic at the time, and these well-wishes only made me feel worse. All of my friends were my age and did not have much experience with this sort of situation, so they tended to stay away out of fear of upsetting me. Our families lived in another state and helped as much as they could, but they couldn’t be there as much as any of us would have liked. I had recently gotten a new job, and I hadn’t had time to make new friendships with my coworkers.
My boyfriend was so sick that at one point he was in the hospital for two weeks, so he was unable to comfort me as he always had before. Some days the feelings of loneliness were overwhelming. The stress of dealing with appointments, doctors running late, needles, feeding tubes, medications, and more caused me to lose so much weight that my doctor became concerned for me. Every time I would open another card or letter, I would feel hurt at the realization that I had nowhere I could go to feel the sense of belonging that a church offers. Even if I did have somewhere to go, I did not have the time. I needed someone to help me. I needed someone to make sure that I was taking care of myself.
It’s been four years, and my boyfriend is now fully recovered—and my husband. Two years ago, I joined a local secularist group and realized that there are other people who also want the same community and sense of belonging that I needed. Over the past couple of years, I have dedicated my time and energy toward making such a community a reality. I recently started my own social group for nonbelievers in the northeast corridor of Iowa called the Corridor A-Team. We currently have more than eighty members, and we hold a variety of social events for members every month. Although my experience as a primary caregiver for a cancer patient was extremely difficult, I am thankful that it has inspired me to bring together this community. Every time I see a new person exchange phone numbers with another member or hear of people getting together outside of the group, I smile. I realize that I have just made sure that one more nonbeliever will have a community standing behind him or her to help in facing both the trials and the joys of life. It makes it all worth it.