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A friend’s illness shows me just how selfish I am

sadnessA 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.

Published in Uncategorized


  1. Thank you for this post. While I don’t know you or Sandra we have a lot of friends in common.

    My husband died from pancreatic cancer that started as a backache. Your post captures the gifts that we have and the importance of just reaching out. Thank you.

  2. Dolores Hawthorne Dolores Hawthorne

    We don’t know each other but our mutual friend has given our paths the opportunity to cross. Your words are is so inspiring, thank you!

    • Elizabeth Andersen Elizabeth Andersen

      This is such a wonderful blog by Patrick. I’ve known him for years, and I worked with him at one point. He and I will both read for Sandra at the Fabulous Queer Writers reading, as will her friends Philip, Miguel, and Annette, and others. Hi! I wish you lived closer so we could go for coffee, Dolores.

  3. Rich Rich

    Thanks, Patrick, for your words of wisdom. I can relate to almost everything you said. I’ve lived my life very similarly, and what’s going on with Sandra has certainly given me pause, and made me want to reevaluate my life and what I’m doing with it.

    I’ve said for years that I’ve put my life on hold to raise my kids, but that’s just a facade that I hide behind. The reality is that I’ve grown complacent, afraid to take risks, and I don’t like what I see when I look back.

    Will I find the courage to change? I’m almost 50, have chronic back pain, and I’m frequently tired. So it would take a lot for me to do something different. Some days I wake up and I’m ready for a change. I make plans that I never follow through on, plans to work out every day, or further my career. Other days I just hope to get through it until I can have my evening nightcap and go to bed. Sad, I tell you.

    Today was a hard day, coming to the realization that Sandra was content to live out her few remaining months and then pass on into what; light? Darkness? None of us really knows, and maybe that’s what makes it so difficult to accept. I was already tired from the 14-inning Royals game last night, so it hit me even harder when the light clicked on and I finally accepted the inevitable. I had to leave my desk at work and go into the bathroom where I cried, hard. I haven’t cried since my grandfather passed away some 20+ years ago, and I realize right now that it’s because another person that I idolize and respect and love is about to leave me, way before her time.

    So yes, I fully comprehend what you’re feeling; the selfishness, the loss, the grief. I question the fairness of a life cut so short. It’s been said that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and Sandra’s candle has burned brighter than a million suns. I hope some day to impact even a fraction of the lives in the way that Sandra has. If I can only make a change.

  4. blue owl blue owl

    The reminders are constant, the world turns. Words help us relieve the pain.

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