A friend of mine came down with cancer recently. I’m not sure if cancer is something you can come down with. You can’t catch it. Maybe it develops. She developed cancer. It took an errant cell, one genetic trip up. Something broke and now it’s going to kill her.
Sandra’s an author who has published four books in the last three years. I have worked with her at JCCC for quite a while now. She teaches anthropology. She always told me she wanted to publish and didn’t find a publisher until just a few years ago. She had all those novels in the pipe, ready to go when she found a publisher. I envy her and her success at the same time I think it couldn’t happen to a better person.
She’s a real go-getter. She’s something of a fitness freak. Until she experienced some back pain a few weeks ago, she ran five or six miles a day and ate right. Everyone at the JCCC gym knows her. One of the very first conversations she and I had was in the gym. I was working weights. She was doing leg lifts. I was sweating and worn out. She looked like she just walked out of the house with a cup of coffee.
A good friend of mine on the faculty worked out with her for years. We had a long talk yesterday about Sandra. What do you do when everything you say to a dying person is selfish? Send a card and let someone else do the talking. Keep her fresh in your mind. Remind her she’s become a part of your DNA.
She’s also a sunny personality who has a million friends. She’s really brings a lot of joy to the lives of many, many people. As an example, our little neighborhood book club read one of her novels as our book last month. I set it up so Sandra could visit with us on our meeting night. This was October 1. The book club, a collection of real regular people, were quite taken with her. She talked to us as if we were the most important things happening in her life at that moment.
She had some back pain that night. She said it came on suddenly about a week before. She was somewhat immobilized but figured that it was just another of the somethings that we all deal with when we sit in chairs for too long. As a matter of fact, we had a conversation in which we discovered that, indeed, our minor back problems and other aches come from being confined to a desk. Such is the writer and teacher’s station in life.
Just last week, the pain became so great that she went to the hospital. After a night in the hospital and a series of tests and x-rays, she discovered that she had tumors up her spine, on her liver, and in her lungs. She was given six months. Just yesterday, the did more tests and found that the cancers had spread so quickly that she has three months at the outside. She’s in for pain management and hospice.
I’m reminded of my good friend, Joachim, who struggled for a year with brain cancer. When he died, I could only think of the e-mails I meant to send but didn’t, the phone calls I didn’t make when I had the chance. I’d missed my chance and I was never going to have that again. In my selfishness, I was inconsolable.
I suppose that’s why I write tonight. I have a minute. We are alive. We have another day in front of us. I just gave the cat a hug and pet the dogs. I thought of my wife, now hard at work. I told Nick he had to take a shower before bed.
Sandra and Joachim reveal to me what a selfish guy I am. For the last few months, I’ve awoken in the morning and my first thought is of the nap I’m going to take a few hours on. I’ve done what’s necessary to earn a paycheck, nothing more. I worry and fret. I wring my hands. I walk around afraid all the time. But I don’t do anything different. I take that nap. I swallow meds at night, the ones that are supposed to keep me out of the nervous hospital. They kick in. I go to sleep. I wake up and think about taking a nap.
I have it all. The wife, the house, the dogs, and kids. We have a steady income and want for nothing. Sandra and Joachim remind me that I’m taking all this for granted. I get to get out of bed in the morning and have a nap. I get to pet the dogs and tell the kid it’s shower time. I get to wonder if a cancer is developing and wring my hands over it when my blood pressure is normal and my at-rest heart rate matches that of an athlete.
I complain because I’m not grateful for what I have. I want to wake up fresh, greet the sun, and see the beauty of the day. I can’t perceive it now. There’s something broken in me that isn’t a cancer. I will get over it soon enough. That’s mental illness. It comes and goes. I go with it.
I’ll wake up someday in the not-too-distant future feeling all right. Sandra doesn’t get to wake up without cancer.