I have a friend who lost her daughter to cancer six months ago. I saw her today for the second time since then, and I am amazed at her ability to go on, to get up and get dressed, put on make-up, go to work, take care of the rest of her family. Her daughter, her firstborn, was just eighteen, so beautiful, so full of energy, so full of life when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She lived for almost a half year longer, giving her family time to prepare themselves with her death. But how can a parent prepare for something so horrendous? I do not know. I know there was a lot of screaming and praying and silent tears and sleepless nights. And I know there was depression, and there still is, a vacant look in the eye, a smile that is forced, the desire to lie down and wake up on the other side.
And how does a child prepare?
I wrote this following piece when I found out the news. My feeble attempt to understand what my sweet friend’s daughter had been going through, while knowing that I never could.
Imagine yourself at eighteen. Maybe you’re a senior in high school. Maybe a freshman at a community college. Maybe you’re taking a year off to rest and decide what to do with the rest of your life. You are intelligent. You are beautiful. And you have all the time in the world, because you are just eighteen. You have a mom and a dad who love you, adore you, really, because you are the baby. And while they want you out of the house so they could downsize and start traveling the world, they also can’t imagine you leaving them. Or maybe you are the eldest, and intertwined with that love is that anxiety parents experience when their firstborn leaves, moves out to try life on her/his own.
Now imagine a visit to your doctor. Your pediatrician. The man or the woman who has seen you every year from the time you were born. This is really the last visit before you move on. You have a bad cough that just isn’t going away, or a bruise that isn’t fading, or a mole on your back that looks a bit strange since the last time you went tanning and fell asleep in the tanning booth, or maybe a headache that just won’t go away.
She examines you, making little noises at the back of her throat. Same noises she’s made while examining your broken nose in second grade when a big ball came out of nowhere while you were walking around the track with your three best friends; or the time you stepped on a rusty nail and had to get a tetanus shot. It sounds like she’s humming, or chirping. In any case, it’s a comforting sound, so you close your eyes and wait for it to be done so you can get dressed and go. You have plans tonight.
Then she sits you down. Takes off her glasses, rubs her eyes, looks at you over her clipboard. And says that you’ll need to go to the lab for some tests. You ask if it could wait until Monday, after all it is three o’clock on Friday and you need to go places. To see people. And there is that shirt, or dress, or shoes that you absolutely need to have for this party you’re attending tonight.
She looks at you and smiles and nods her head, but a sigh escapes. First thing Monday morning, she reminds you. Then she gives you a hug that’s a bit too tight and a bit too long. And your childhood ends. Because you know that something is going on. There’s a war inside your body. Something you have no control over. And all cheer until you find out what it is, is false cheer.
So you call your mom. She’s frantic. She hangs up too quickly, then calls you back. She tells you to wait for her right there, she’s on her way. And you wait because what else can you do? Meanwhile thoughts race through your head: you’re just eighteen; whatever it is, it isn’t fair; there are never any decent magazines in the doctor’s office; maybe you’ll be done quickly at the lab; you hope you make it to the mall; you’re just eighteen…
And the weekend passes in a blur. Your doctor calls on Monday. You need more tests. You go in. You get hooked up to things. Blood flows out of your veins and into countless vials. You hear your mom crying herself to sleep at night. Your dad, so strong, so tough, is breaking apart. So you try to be brave for your parents and for your siblings who watch you with big, fearful eyes. Or maybe you break down and cry with them. You hope. You despair. You pray. You pray for a miracle. After all you are just eighteen. And your whole life should be ahead of you.
If you find it in your heart, please say a prayer for my friend. That peace and joy return to her. Thank you, my dear and lovely readers.
On the outskirts of my Tanti Marie’s village there was a proper little cemetery where the village met the wild forests, with marble cross tombstones alongside wooden ones enclosed by a wrought iron fence. Very beautiful, but quite scary to a little girl of seven. The village madwoman spent all her days and nights in there, sleeping on what she thought was her lover’s tomb. He had gone to the war and left her pregnant and when word got to her that he was dead she tried to drown the baby in the courtyard well and drank a glass of poison to kill herself. Her family took the baby away and gave it to a wealthy couple in the city, no doubt lining their pockets with lots of gold pieces and crisp banknotes. Her, they turned out of the house, spitting and cursing after her departing figure. At least they spared her the institution.
As children we were afraid of her and her eerie wailing, and stayed well away. It was a good thing the village was long and narrow. The grown-ups accustomed to grief and having known her since her childhood, yet also highly superstitious, made the sign of the cross whenever they saw her but did not neglect to bring her bread and a woolen shawl when the nights got chilly.
I don’t know where she slept the winter months, when the entire village was under a blanket of snow. Her family home, abandoned since the death of her mother, she had set unsuccessful fire to. My Tanti Marie claimed that the madwoman was actually a witch who turned herself into the black cat that was forever scratching at villagers’ doors to be let in on those long winter nights. Before dusk darkened the sky and lengthened the shadows, the village women would set a bowl of milk and a chunk of black bread out. If they were consumed, I do not remember.
But, I have been thinking about her lately. About how little was known back then and in that country about mental illness. About how the mentally ill were institutionalized and even killed because of the fear they instilled in others. About those whispers I remember amongst the village women of her promiscuity, when all along she most likely had been raped. And about how fear finds a way to feed on fear until it leaves one gasping in its wake.
And I am ashamed and embarrassed at my own reaction even nowadays. Flinching when I see a mentally unstable homeless man or woman. So starkly uncomfortable with those I see mumbling to themselves. Once on a crowded train there was a man shaking a fried chicken leg and yelling profanities, and I fled in terror, preferring to wait another fifteen minutes in the cold station than risk his attention. Why? I’m well aware my fears aren’t realistic. I’ve studied mental health. I’ve worked in mental health. I know that these people are probably far more afraid of me than I am of them.
And yet… Although I may not be literally making the sign of the cross, I still am praying up a storm.
Did I say that I am ashamed and embarrassed? Mired down by superstitious fear? When I really ought to know better? Yes, I did. But I am working on it. Because it is fear that hides the beauty within and keeps me from living. And I really want to live.
For me the year 2009 has been one of the saddest years yet. People I have loved have died- and I am not talking about Michael Jackson and the handful of celebrities that happened to share the earth at the same time as I. I am talking about men, women and children I have met, I have hugged, I have cried with, and I have laughed with. Relatives and friends that have made an impact on my life more profound than a song or book or discovery. Real people that struggled with stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, brain tumors. People that have struggled with real fears not imaginary, who have been loving to the very end, who have placed their families and loved friends above their imminent death, who have been unselfish, who have refused to live with a “poor little me, let’s everyone be sad for me” mentality.
I shall forever miss them all. Daughters barely out of high school, newly wed husbands, mothers, fathers, grandparents. Their laughter, the spark in their eyes, their sense of humor, the profound, unshakeable faith in the love of their God. And I pray that peace descend upon their families. Peace for the parents, peace for the siblings, peace for the offspring. May 2010 bring them joy. Deep and pure and real.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (Henry David Thoreau)
Monday morning dawned cold and clear, a streak of pink across the sky. I lay in bed a few extra minutes, loving the warmth of the sheets, hubby’s arm around me, and my youngest darling who had snuck in our bed sometime during the dark night. It had been a restless night, characterized by much tossing and turning and checking of the time. As we were preparing the kids for bed we had received horrible news. A close family friend had died after almost a year of fighting for his life. He had been young, younger than me, and had left behind a wife, siblings, and aging parents.
And he had worked so hard, a most diligent student of life. First at his studies, then at his job, then at his marriage, and finally at what was slowly killing him. We were expecting this call to come sometime in the future. He had been doing so well lately, and the spark of loving life hadn’t left his eye. The news left us speechless, our thoughts meandering over the years of our lives.
How many of those we had lived carelessly and ungrateful for the miracle life is? We had hurt the ones who love us in our indifference and selfishness. We had worried about ridiculous things. We had overlooked nurturing relationships in favor of making money. And shouldn’t it be the other way? Why is it that the suicide rate had increased during the present economic situation? For that reason alone: a genuine lack of spiritual and human connection. When what one places one’s hopes in disappears, what is there to turn to?
As I am preparing to say my last goodbyes to our friend, I am making a promise to myself. I will tend to my relationships; I will be more thankful; I will forgive more quickly and apologize to the people I have hurt; I will love unconditionally; I will kiss and hug my loved ones even more; I will measure my words; I will act with compassion; I will stop worrying about transient things and instead focus on the eternal; I will live with a sense of gratitude and not one of entitlement; I will seize every opportunity to see the beauty around me and revel in God’s gift of life. And finally, I will live. I will live passionately.