I first hear about him when I start working at the store.
"When is Stephen coming back?" co-workers and customers ask.
He is a fellow cashier diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, nearing the end of his 12 weeks of chemo treatment. I picture an old man, like my father, a tonsil cancer survivor, and am surprised to learn he is only 17.
And then he returns, slowly at first. Tall, pale, and bald, he works shifts at the register, taking short breaks to sit down in the cafe when he gets tired. One night our supervisor asks him to bring up more paper bags from downstairs; they come in bulk, wrapped in brown paper and awkward in size. Stephen admits he isn't strong enough yet and will need to use a cart; our supervisor carries the bags himself. Stephen shows me a selfie from when he had hair; he looks like Justin Bieber. He tells me how he first discovered the lump under his arm when he was lifting weights and wonders when the hyperpigmentation of his skin will go away, if the white, wavy lines in his fingernails will ever disappear. He will have to be very careful in the sun, he tells me. He asks off work the day the doctors take the port out of his chest.
The simplest definition of cancer is "uncontrolled growth" of cells. At 17 when the body is already developing with reckless abandon and the self is struggling to establish independence, his very cells had started growing uncontrollably. As if the body was too small to contain them and their rampant ambition.
He gets stronger. He starts lifting weights again, thinks about running. He studies his reflection in the scanner on his check-out counter, looking for returning hair and darkening eyebrows. Even a few days makes a difference, and his peach fuzz grows neatly into a blonde head of hair that customers comment on, the more attentive ones saying, "It's coming back!" and the less attentive only marking that something is different: "Did you get a haircut?"
The more Stephen and I work together, the less I think about his cancer and the more I think of him as a typical teen. He shows me a photo of his girlfriend, tells me about the ring he bought her that cost more than my wedding ring. He teases a girl for liking a boy and talks with another teen about the latest trends, like the release of Kylie Jenner's lipstick. He hates that his name is misspelled as "Stephan" on his name tag. Identity and appearance are paramount. I turn around once to see him making a funny face into his reflection on the scanner. "I'm trying to make my lips into the shape of a heart," he says. Obviously. And yet he seems an old soul, too, with his frustrated clean-cut expletive of, "Great day!" to which I respond, "Great day in the morning!"
We often work the closing shift together when there is time to talk in that last hour. He is shocked to learn I am 30. Surprised, too, to learn I am married. He casually mentions he can't wait to have kids. I have a flashback to summer school between sophomore and junior year when we watched The Outsiders and one of my classmates, age 15, opened her wallet to show me photos of her baby. My heart panics at the idea, and I tell him he is so young. So. Young. He explains that he comes from a big family and has helped raise younger siblings. I can understand the pull now; children are more familiar to him than they are to me, less of the scary unknown. But still I offer a mini lecture on being financially stable, and stand on my child-of-divorce soap box to preach the certainty of being with the right person before bringing kids into the picture.
"Of course," he says to these things.
"I'm not ready yet," I say.
"But you're 30!" he reminds me with a laugh and a smile. I am nearly twice his age, and this is ancient.
I don't mind, and I laugh. "But I'm not dependent on my own biology," I say, having already told him we want to adopt. "So there's still time."
"True," he says.
One night a father comes in with two young daughters and takes them straight to the candy aisle. He calls them "Twirly Girlies" and lets them choose what they like. Stephen and I both smile as we watch them.
"They're so cute." he says. "I can't wait to have kids," he says again.
"You're so young!" I remind him. "You have plenty of time," I say, completely oblivious to the fact that I've just told a cancer survivor he should feel free to take his time (and his life) for granted.
In my cautious approach to my own life, I have assumed everyone has the same amount of time, and the same relationship with time that I experience. I have shaken my head when people have rushed into relationships, rushed into marriage. "If it's for the rest of your life, what's the hurry?" I wonder. I made my own husband wait until we'd been together for three years before I'd listen to a proposal and even then he was afraid I might scare off: "When I ask, you're not going to say no, are you?" he said.
I have been thinking of Stephen as a typical teen. But then he says the thing that reminds me he isn't a typical teen.
"If I get cancer again they're going to have to use a more aggressive treatment..."
His reality hits me like an anvil. But it takes me a while to understand that it's not death he's afraid of. He worries about his ability to create new life if he has to undergo treatment again. He's afraid of not living the life he wants to live, of not gaining the experience and identity to which he aspires: fatherhood.
I say I'm not dependent on my own biology (in terms of motherhood) but really we all are when it comes to our bodies' physical limitations in the pursuit of our dreams. None of us has a guaranteed amount of time here.
I remember being 17 and wanting nothing more in life than to be a writer. I look at Stephen differently then, a young man planning ahead, holding an ambition and a vision for his life that he can see with such admirable clarity, a clarity that most adults lose over the years as their dreams become clouded, sometimes their very lives lost in the fog.
Today is my last day at the store. I started working there almost 4 months ago, after I resigned myself, ever-cautious, to writing only quarter-time, instead of part-time. Now as I attempt to beat back the fear that always meets with desire, to push the clouds out of the dream, and try not to take time for granted, I thank you, Stephen.