Open Letter to a Lost Friend: Cancer Sucks

This is one in a series of letters to a lost friend. You can also read about Mona and Sandy.

Dear Dela,

We had so many good days together. May 26, 2010, wasn’t one of them.

  • I was out when you called.
  • I didn’t hear my cell when you tried it.
  • I didn’t have a car that day.
  • You were already at ER when I returned your call.
  • Did I already mention? I didn’t have a car that day.

Every bit of alignment was off. I’m not sure that a swimmingly perfect alignment would have made a difference. Your body was weary of battling that monster. I couldn’t have saved you. But I could have been there. My absence still pains me.

Dave dropped you off! We told you all along (I feel the same now), we don’t like Dave.

You were alone in the ER. I was home without a car. But I had a phone, so I scolded damn Dave, and, desperate for a ride, I called a friend. She happened to be at the hospital!

“I can check on her, let you know how she’s doing.”

Leukemia is a sneaky monster. Your complexion, your posture, your gate, they never betrayed your illness. Your cheeks always rosy, your smile always quick. Damn leukemia.

“She was a little groggy, but she seems okay. She kept asking me if she could get me something!”

You were always the gracious hostess, Dela. Even in your last hours. I relaxed. This was good.

A midnight call: “I’m on her emergency list but I’m out of town.” Cracking in her voice. “They say she’s not going to make it. Can you go?”

My partner, home by then, hoisted me off to the ER. Running. “How can this be happening?” Long, wide, confusing white corridors. “Damn Dave!” Panic. Fear. “How does anyone get to the right place!?”

But I found you. Leukemia was no longer hiding its ugly face. Those paddles couldn’t save you, but in the effort, they had beaten you to bloody bruises. Your head was cushioned in blood-soaked hospital towels.

The doctor’s pointed question: “She’ll probably crash again. Should we keep doing this?”

Everything you feared. Everything you didn’t want. How could I respond, “Yes! Beat the bloody hell out of her again!”?

I thought perhaps you’d linger a bit longer.

“I’ll go home to get a few things and come back, sit with her until her brother arrives.”

What the hell “things” did I need? Stupid! The misalignment of thought and circumstance persisted.

In my driveway, I was poised to run into the house to grab this and that thing when the doctor called.

Dela's dragonfly

I found myself surrounded by dragonflies in my garden the day you died. Coincidentally, my daughter named her purple car Adelaide, and the day she traded her in, this guy was perched on her antenna. Were you reaching out?

You slipped away around 2 am on the 27th of one of my favorite months.

I take comfort in this: While I was still at the hospital, trying to decide where it was safe to touch you without causing pain, I found one of your hands under the bloody towels. I breathed in the story you had told me about your father, who, during his last days, seemed to fret over cemeteries with no vacancies. You told him, “It’s OK day, Dad. They have a place for you.” He passed that day. I exhaled: “It’s OK to let go. I love you. You are a mess, but you lived life beautifully.”

I spoke at your memorial service. When it was over, one friend said half-jokingly, “That was beautiful. I want you to speak at mine.” Her comment reminded me: Say it now. Let your friend know now why she or he is special to you.

Since May 27, 2010, more friends have become entangled in the cancer web. Most have found their way out. We try to understand how to be good friends to them. We tell their stories responsibly. I’m telling yours again. Next month, it will be six years. We still don’t like Dave. We still love you. This (A Beautiful Mess) was my tribute to you.

A Beautiful Mess

This is the story about me and Dela. Dela was beautiful. I’m a mess. End of story.

Actually, the “mess” is the elephant in the room and I like to kick sedentary elephants around whenever I get a chance. I often end up with a sore foot, sometimes a new perspective, but I always learn something in the process. So, for just a minute or two, I hope you’ll bear with me as I give this elephant —the mess— a kick.

Dela was a beautiful person, a beautiful friend. She was a mess of interesting things and interests. She had countless circles of friends. And for every friend in every circle, there’s a different story of Dela, a different bright moment of joy he or she remembers. I’ve been getting messages from friends of Dela, some of whom haven’t seen her for as many as 30 years. They want to tell their story of Dela. She had an untidy network of friends. She traveled through that mess of a network with grace and touched and lifted up many.

So . . . what is a “mess,” anyway? Sometimes it’s a tangle. Sometimes it’s an untidy clutter. Sometimes it’s just the noise or the pace or the plans. What is a beautiful mess? It doesn’t have to be a bad or ugly thing. It just is.

Dela was a beautiful mess, and if we focus on her home for a moment, we can get a glimpse of the breadth and depth of her mess, her life, her circles of friends, her fields of adventure.

  • A china cabinet full of dainty teapot and tea cup sets.
  • An armoire full of exquisite French linens.
  • A small kitchen bursting at the seams where she prepared ratatouille, homemade biscotti, and Tanqueray and tonics with lots and lots of lime . . . all of this on small counters crowded with fancy dishes and gadgets that didn’t quite fit in the cupboards.
  • A beautifully resurfaced wooden floor, strewn with newspapers, often turned to the sports page for baseball scores and stats.
  • Boxes and piles of amazing paper: textured, colored, handcrafted . . . all kinds of paper.
  • Shoes. Lots of shoes.
  • The dining table loaded with a flat of Ponchatoula strawberries in the winter or sweet Washington Parish watermelons in the summer.
  • Shelves and shelves and shelves of books.
  • A maze of beauty products to fight off signs of passing time.
  • and so much more . . .

Many of us close to Dela occasionally fussed at her about the different piles of mess in her life, sometimes we’d even try to tidy things up for her. But there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.

Now . . . I miss her mess. But mostly, I miss her graceful way of living through, above, and in spite of any mess.

I’ve had messes in my life. On occasion, she sat down in the middle of a mess with me. She was better than I was. She never judged my mess or me for it. Dela simply brought joy into the place where we sat. She brightened the moment with her humor and acceptance. She lifted our thoughts and our emotions above the mess, whether it was physical, emotional, or spiritual.

I will treasure those moments.

When one of the biggest messes any of us might fear or dread fell into her life, Dela was, quite simply, amazing. That mess, leukemia, was a pesky, annoying mess. And although this cancerous cantankerous disease followed her around EVERYwhere she went for better than ten years, most people didn’t know it. Dela did not live IN the mess.

Dela chose to live through it, above it, and in spite of it, up until the very end. Where many of us might cringe and hole up, whine and take pity on ourselves, Dela continued to laugh, to live in the light of the moment, and to bring joy to any place she was present.dela-cancer-sucks-2

I am humbled by her grace and elegance as she endured the fears disease inspires, as she sat through hours of treatments and tests, as she thumbed through endless waiting room magazines, hospital bills, and insurance papers. I am grateful she chose, for those ten diseased years, to live her life, to laugh with her friends, and to lift us up even as she was being swallowed by a monster. I am honored to have been one of her friends, and I hope that I can be half as brave, half as beautiful, and half as elegant standing in the messes of my life. Mostly, I hope I told her often enough, when she was present and brightly alive, what a beautiful mess she was and how much I loved her.

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Cancer? I’m lifting you up.

lifting-you-up

Your friend has cancer. Every genuine, heartfelt phrase you want to share sounds cliché and the more you delete and rewrite, the more your words become faded Hallmark sentiments. “How can I express to her how I’m feeling?”

Then you ask yourself, “What can I do? Should I call? No, she’s probably flooded with calls, but what if she thinks . . . ? Maybe I’ll pop in to check on her. No, what if her whole family . . . ? I’ll just text. But I need to do something. I’ll bring meals for the family. But what if someone already did?”

Struggling with these questions after you receive the news is a sign that you might be a truly supportive friend. Thoughtful words and gestures are a good beginning. Thoughtful awareness is an excellent delivery vehicle for your words and acts. (Related story: Whose Story Is It Anyway?)

Over the past fifteen years, nineteen friends and close acquaintances have faced cancer. Eight died. Geography, level of intimacy, and personal circumstances were factors in the extent of my connection during their treatment and recovery. While my involvement varied greatly, the struggle with words and acts was a constant. No matter how close I am to the person, physically or personally, I want the things that I say and do to make a difference, even if as simple as a fleeting smile.

I ambitiously set out to write a list of dos and don’ts for interacting with a friend who has cancer. After reaching out to friends with cancer stories, I realized the futility of a concrete list. The perfect thing for one friend is the worst for another. What did come from my conversations and ruminations is this list of guidelines, two of which I touched on above, all of which are relevant to caring for friends in any difficult circumstance.

1. Check in.

Let your friend know that you’re thinking about her. If you decide not to call because her lines are flooded or you’re not sure what to say, send a card, an email, or a text. If you’re struggling with the words, let that struggle go and use the words you find. Even a short text that borders on cliché can make a difference to a friend who is going through a tough time.

Keep checking in. Your friend will be flailing through waves of emotions, physical hardships, and practical concerns throughout her treatment and beyond. Even if you’re not one of the primary people taking care of her, check in regularly to let her know you’re thinking of her or to offer help. When treatment is complete, check in some more. The emotional and physical impact of cancer treatments can linger well beyond the last treatment date.

2. Tune in.

Be thoughtful and aware. Each cancer journey is unique. One friend explained: “the most important thing is to remember that every person is different, and we all have different problems / obstacles / challenges, which means there is no single appropriate response.”

Tuning in is listening. If you ask: “How are you feeling?” or “How are you doing?”, listen to the response.

Tuning in is also practicing thoughtful awareness of your friend’s support network, personality, and receptiveness.

If your friend has a family or community support network, communicate with that network so that you’re not duplicating or hindering the efforts of others. If there is no “built-in” support network, team up with other friends to create one.

Your friend’s personality is your guideline for interactions. Is she stoic or does she need a little extra boost? Is she all business or does she enjoy a laugh? A little levity can be helpful, but only if she’s ready for it. During a chemo treatment, the art therapist told my friend, “You’re back! Remember me?” My friend responded no. The therapist asserted, “Yes, you were here last week,” which wasn’t true. After the fourth insistence, I responded, “Well, she’s got that bald thing going on. They all look alike, don’t they?” The art therapist stood stunned. My friend belly-laughed, and she was ready for that.

How communicative is your friend? Is she open to sharing details about her treatment and feelings? Give your friend a chance to open up if she wants, but don’t pry her for details she’s not ready to share.

3. Be specific about what you can do.

Spell out it out. Don’t carelessly toss your friend an extra burden: “Let me know if you need anything.” Specify: “Can I mow your lawn this weekend?” or “I’m available to run errands for you for two hours on Friday.”

Your friend may not know what she needs; even if she does, she may not reach out. Tuning in and being specific can help. I asked two questions in one afternoon:

“Can I get you anything from Costco?”

“No, I’m good.”

Fifteen minutes later:

“I’m at Costco. Do you need any salmon?”

“Yes, that would be great. And can you check to see if they have any LaCroix?”

In the end, my friend requested five things. After tuning in to her habit of responding, “No, I’m good,” I called back with a specific question. This helped her think through and verbalize what she needed.

4. Be a thoughtful visitor.

Don’t pop in. During treatment, your friend may feel weary and not particularly social or presentable. Call ahead, make sure it’s a good time, and specify how long you will stay. “I can visit for fifteen minutes tomorrow if you like. I’ll bring ice cream.”

Don’t linger. Be cognizant of how your friend is feeling when you arrive. She may not be up for the visit after all, or she may be feeling anxious and need the company. One friend explained that the fifteen- to twenty-minute visits from a friend with a listening ear and comfort food were the best.

Don’t react. Avoid: “This is just dreadful!”, “I can’t believe this is happening to you!”, or “This is a piece of cake! You can do it.” On the other hand, be open to and don’t sugarcoat the emotions your friend is feeling. Her fear and anxiety are part of her story. If she wants to share those, listen but don’t try to qualify them.

Don’t give medical advice. Well-intended advice is often annoying, even disturbing. If you have information that might be helpful, don’t discuss it. Simply share the website or the book. It’s not your place to prescribe or recommend treatments. Your friend will discuss those with her doctors.

Don’t vent or ramble about inconsequential events. This can be insulting to the friend you’ve come to visit. Sure, she may want to talk about something other than her cancer, but let the communication flow from your friend to you. If conversation stalls, ask about other things in her life. “How is Timmy doing in school?” “Is Olivia still playing soccer?” Or, just sit and allow the quiet presence of companionship.

5. Remember the primary caregivers.

Reach out to the primary caregiver. Although that spouse, sibling, or friend may have meals, errands, chores, and visitation perfectly coordinated, he or she may need some additional support. Check in to find out and offer specific things you can do.

6. Don’t try to own her cancer.

Respect the boundaries. Friends often rush in to help a sick friend. Don’t let that become a competition or complication. Coordinate your efforts, avoid squabbles and pettiness. What you do for your friend and your struggle to find the right things to say and do are valid, but that story is the sub-plot. This is her cancer story. It’s her cancer. Not yours. Quiet support is often the biggest expression of love.

Thanks to my friends who shared their cancer stories and whose thoughts helped me cobble together some guidelines. Specifically, thanks to these ladies.

lifting-up-jane-1

Jane with her dad and brother shortly after surgery

lifting-up-mim-1

Mim and her husband, both of whom faced cancer

lifting-up-patti

Patti with her two children

lifting-up-lisa-1

Lisa with her sister, who was with her every step of the way

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.