A friend recently shared a meme that began: “Stupid cancer...”
Two weeks ago I stopped to visit an old friend I’ve had the pleasure to know for over 25 years. He lives out of town and since his hearing is lousy, phone conversing is limited, so I try to check in and visit him about every 6 months or so. This time, I looked forward to sharing about my recent adventures on the Emerald Isle. However, when he greeted me his familiar friendly face was clouded by a terrible, large sore atop his head. When I asked what the hell had happened, he replied: “The long and short of it John, is: skin cancer, advanced.” My momentary shock pales next to what he’s had to absorb.
Stupid f*cking cancer! He was diagnosed about two months ago and had just completed rounds of radiation. He was worn thin and visibly exhausted. We paused several times during our conversation as he held his head in his hands in obvious pain. Despite his conspicuous discomfort, he insisted on visiting with me for a few hours. I tried to get a few house chores done in his place and keep him comfortable. Typical of him, he graciously asked about my life and attentively listened. I swallowed my concerns and did my best to offer him something else to think about. Since it was a gorgeous sunny day he was eager to step outside. We managed a walk in his beautifully manicured gardens, which were now in need of attention. Sensing the urgency of his circumstance I’ve been back twice since. I’m able to write that he looks just a bit less worn, had a little more energy, was just a bit brighter, and the awful sores seemed less raw. Everything about this continues to haunt me.
This dear friend has inspired me for decades, mostly through his example of HOW to live. Knowing him has greatly enriched and deeply affected my life. It’s terrible to see him suffering in this way. Being with him has forced me to consider the agony people experience when family or loved ones are forced to deal with various forms of this heinous disease. The impact must pervade all aspects of their lives. Even the crucial life-saving treatments can be arduous and painful. My friend has no children, no spouse, and lives alone. He’s a stubborn maverick so it’s no surprise he’s determined to try and make his way without much help. I suspect this obstinate attitude has always been partly why I relate to him. And why I now worry about him: the trade off being that at this moment his choice of limited assistance means a simple fall on the stairs from his second floor bedroom could become a torturous calamity. Maybe given that I’m also alone right now, his circumstances unconsciously resonate in a more disconcerting way within me.
No matter, he’s still in pain from this stupid f*cking cancer! Regrettably most of us can think of more than one friend or family facing this awful disease. I know three others right now—the four warriors I’m aware of vary in age from 88 to 12. None of them “deserve” it. There is nothing “fair” or “just” about any aspect of it. They’re all generally “decent”, comparatively “innocent” people, who randomly have been assigned this incredibly challenging burden. Each is valiantly fighting, literally for their life. A small silver lining is that like most reading this, I also know friends who have faced down this ugly monster. Still I ache to even consider —frankly can’t imagine— what they endured.
It’s prominent in my mind after attending to my friend, but often I’ve been utterly oblivious to the vast amounts of energy the survivor folks must have put out, or the folks battling illnesses currently are drawing upon from within to keep going. Cruising along in my own relatively easy life, it’s beyond my comprehension to grasp how they each have managed to come to terms emotionally with the ever-present threat of the hideous beast returning, and the frightening ever-looming impact on their loved ones and families as well. When such hurricanes hit I assume everything about one’s life and perspective on living becomes entirely reframed. We are literally rubbing shoulders all the time with unknown and unsung heroes and heroines, to me far more significant and worthy than most pop culture stars or sports heroes.
Sadly, I/we continue to not create enough space in our busy lives to allow each other to really share. Recently I learned a work colleague/friend had reached his limit, and ended his life. I sensed he was stressed but had no clue the depth or severity of the burden he must have felt. It’s a terrible tragedy, and regrettably stigmatized issue, with a myriad of causes, and spin-off effects on the survivors that are both broad and painful. Even if the feelings felt by those suffering mental health illness may be beyond their ability to articulate, it seems just knowing someone is willing to listen can alleviate some suffering.
Too often we make it difficult to fully share what’s happening in each other’s lives. Amazingly (and regrettably) folks suffering deal with their “regular” life duties and responsibilities while quietly hauling intense, enormous loads. It’s as if we’ve become at once so judgmental, intolerant, quick to shout our views, and contrarily so isolated, so “safely private” and distanced, people now fear expressing genuine personal feelings or revealing challenging emotions face to face. As if these are too “messy,” or not fully formed, not polished enough like rehearsed sound bites or slick memes. We can post insecurity-driven rants on social media, but not make the time to hear the quiet suffering of our neighbor. I’m certain I’ve been guilty of this.
Unique as our circumstances and backgrounds may be, we are indeed all connected, as surely as all the varied trees in a forest. It pains me to consider I have encouraged isolation of anyone. Perhaps this is why I find it so difficult to let go of friendships, or “erase” relationships. Life is so very complex; yet simple kindness toward each other is so very possible and life-affirming.
In my essays I try to share the beauty I discover. I seek to uplift others best I can while I’m here. To be fully aware of life, I feel I must accept that death is part of the whole. Yet while I can wax poetic about the cycles of life in nature, the seasons we all inhabit, the fact is I’ve personally not had to confront many of the challenges others have surmounted. Other more incredible people (and their families) have found the resolve and courage and emotional strength and will power and sheer grit to hold at bay or beat back all manner of struggles. You inspire me to live as vitally as possible. I feel sadness for those who have transitioned, yet even within the acceptance of one’s mortality feel there’s a profound strength.
My friends who are currently cancer warriors, all those bravely fighting ills and other human struggles, as well as you amazing, empowering survivors, are beyond any words of admiration. You all ARE the most vital testament, you embody beauty; though we don’t acknowledge it often enough, we’re all honored to know you, and our lives are graced by your presence.