Winter is licking our city at last. Snow is falling and the wind is up; teeming clouds of infinitesimal flakes swirl and mount through the air like vast schools of glittering fish or bird flocks that seem guided by a single consciousness. But the wild weather and snow day excitement cannot lift my heart just now. I have to write it to feel for the way forward. If you need coziness and good cheer today, I beg you click away.
On Monday we lost my husband’s godmother, who went more rounds with terminal cancers than anyone dreamed was possible and lived with courage and grace and brazen joy in the face of every difficult day. On Tuesday another beloved person we count as family shared her own diagnosis. The test results flooding in bring black news. Despite her knowledge of the battle ahead and the suffering soon to begin, my friend wakes gleeful at the forecast snow, brimful with the blessings of her life, tender and thoughtful to everyone around her as usual. I know too many of us have felt it, this desperate urge to throw your body between a loved one and the tide, as if you might somehow stop it rising to swallow them. The uselessness you feel because you can’t shelter them from the pain and sickness, because the comforts you can provide seem so peripheral and so puny. (If you’ve lived this, if you can talk about it, will you please tell me what can I do for my friend and her husband as they slog through grim months of treatment? It looks like the full battery of chemo, surgery, and radiation will be necessary.) I thought we’d age together, she leading the way and teaching me how to do it with dignity and delight. I can’t compass the notion that she might not be here. I can’t think of my children growing up without her.
I’m knitting a sock because one stitch after another seems to be the only way I can move through this moment; holding still feels like letting the grief and worry fix me with their yellow eyes so they can creep close and gobble me down. I am trying to imagine how I might grow more like these two women I’ve loved so well, these brave tough incandescent women who knew/know how to knuckle down and live into the world, how to savor its stew of pain and beauty. But it’s a proper blizzard inside and out today.
The winter of my fourth year of medical school I went from having two grandparents to having none in one week. It was a dark time, but I try to honor them every day by living a good life, a kind life, a life as full of love and happiness and I can muster. I know you will try to do the same. I wish I could hug you today and through the winter. Xoxox
Two years ago I lost my dear brother in law and my closest female friend, both to cancer. Less than a year apart. I say their names aloud at least once a day to keep them near. The following quote brings me comfort:
When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart. For as long as your remember me, I am never entirely lost.”
Frederick Buechner (Whistling in the Dark p. 100)
Thinking of you in these tough times…
Oh, Sarah. My thoughts and prayers are with you, your family, and your friends. It’s never easy. My only thoughts as far as experience with this goes is to keep in touch, kind words, everyday thoughts, in whatever way you know will get to them, even if they are unable to respond. The hardest part is feeling you want to do more, when knowing all you can do is be present, even if that means not in person because they need their space and privacy. It is a gift to walk with someone through the darkest of times. No matter what, you are able to offer that.
Just continuing to be her friend is the best thing you can do. She’s going to need all of the things you’ve always shared – the gossip, book recommendations, the phone calls, pictures, silly girl things….in short – your company. Its the most important thing you have to share.
If your friend would wear soft hats, knitted ones from you would be comforting. Making dinners like lasagna or something similar to last several days and can be frozen is wonderful. Transportation and walking together in love are priceless. Yes, I have been a caregiver as daughter and wife through the walk.
I spoke with someone yesterday who cared for her partner through a long illness. She said the best thing a friend did was to give her a few hours once a week, no questions asked. This woman could then either pack the time with appointments and catch ups with friends, or just sit in the park and have some time to herself. She spoke of this as if it were the most precious gift, to know she would have that downtime every week.
And these women are teaching you very important lessons as they progress through their illnesses. A friend of mine is currently facing her own diagnosis, also with grace and deep faith. She is still one of my role models and idols and I love her the more for what she is teaching all of us around her.
I am a breast cancer survivor, I underwent chemo, surgery & radiation. I am including a link to an article that my friend sent me, an article that really nails some of the trickier emotional pitfalls of this disease and it’s treatment. Take a look when you get a chance, maybe it will help you understand some of what your dear ones are going through. I feel like I walked my way through treatment. Every day, any weather, even when I was so weak that I could barely make it 1/4 mile, I walked. Honestly, I think it saved my life! I had one dear friend that bought me a brand new pair of shoes for this. Another friend walked with me to my radiation appointments (5 mi. round trip) 5 days a week. A group of gardening friends would show up once a week and weed my vegetable garden. I never knew what to ask for, in the way of help – it just showed up. You will know what to do!
I watched my husband through two major surgeries, thirteen minor surgeries, and six months of chemo after a near-terminal diagnosis. He had wonderful doctors and is now cancer free and four years out, so you never know. I think the best thing you can do for a cancer patient is listen and bring some normalcy to their days. Remember that they feel nauseous and miserable. My husband tells me that he felt a huge desire to survive, and he did everything I asked of him, like forcing himself to eat, and move a little when he didn’t want to. It’s also important to be there for the spouse or other person that is the major caretaker. They can’t voice their fears and concerns to their spouse because the patient-spouse is just trying to hang on. I will keep you and your loved ones in my thoughts.
I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s godmother, and about your dear friend. The only thing I can add to the wonderful comments above is to be with your friend as friends, and to be there to talk when she wants to talk and to be there silent when she wants to be silent. That is some of the best comfort.
It made me sad to read about your friend. When I was in hospital having my first baby (who is now 43) an older mother in the bed next to me received some bad news about her baby and also about other members of her seemingly turbulent family. She shared this news with me and after every piece of news kept repeating the phrase “life is so hard”. It took me so many years to understand what she meant; I was so young at the time and pretty much unscathed.
Treatments are completely amazing these days; I have seen with my own eyes the miracles that can be wrought. You friend is lucky to have a friend in you….
My dear Sarah, I read your post and cried for you, for what you’ve lost and what your friend must face. All of the right things to do have been covered in the wonderful comments above but I will add something…As you grieve, offer comfort, hope, support take a moment, more than once a day if needed to give yourself a bit of sustenance. Hug your children, knit, plant something just to watch it grow… Feed your soul so it’s strong enough to feed your friend’s and support you while you heal. When the oxygen masks come down they say put yours on first then assist the child or person next to you, same applies in the day to day.
And… I’m here for you…