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.

About Pennie Nichols

This little corner is dedicated to some of the things that interest me and to those of you who share those interests about relationships, travel, cooking, gardening, canning, jewelry, and writing. I’ll throw in some recipes and stories for your reading pleasure.

6 thoughts on “Open Letter to a Lost Friend: Cancer Sucks

  1. Alana

    Today, I was told about the death of a former co worker (breast cancer). This was a little more than six months after my childhood best friend also passed from cancer. Your blog post brought tears to my eyes. Yes, cancer sucks. Sucks big time.

    Reply
    • Pennie Nichols Post author

      Truly sucks. The news about co-workers is disturbing, the news about a friend in heart-wrenching. And a little part of me always fears for myself as well. But for the grace of God there go I.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *