My grandfather once said, “If you could see cancer, you’d wanta shoot it.”
He was a pathologist, so he saw a lot up close. But you don’t need a microscope to know exactly what cancer looks like.
I watched it eat my Mama up bit by bit—as if chemo and all her visual exercises she called, “imagine-nazation,” never happened. She lost the battle, but she died well, and that was beautiful to see. Her spirit was palpable that morning and so was the light in her hospital room. It glowed in muted white—the way I once saw a kitchen look when it was misted with flour.
Since then, I’ve thought about other folks like her. Those who fight cancer with everything they’ve got and still lose. Did they feel like Mama after learning her cancer had come back with a vengeance? She felt like she’d failed. Maybe, she said, she hadn’t conjured up those images of destroying cancer vividly enough or often enough. That “enough” word makes a beeline to the bottom of your belly. Guilt. There’s no amount of chemo for that.
The Phone Call
I’m remembering these things now, 44 years later, because on December 13th, 2016, I got a phone call from a friend, Graham, who’d just buried her daddy. From her tone, I knew there was more bad news. “I’m sick,” she said. Then, came that f*cking word: Cancer. I felt it coming the way you first feel an undertow. She said it was the size of a tennis ball in her lung. My throat tightened. My free hand made a fist.
Feelings ran through me like a freight train. Shock, sadness and then, after we hung up, came the inevitable caboose, anger
Feelings ran through me like a freight train. Shock, sadness and then, after we hung up, came the inevitable caboose, anger. The monster that brought Mama down had struck again. This time, it’d found a life long friend, whose face was all over my bulletin board. The photographs of us—“two peas in a pod” we called each other—trace a friendship over 56 years. Graham and me in her backyard. Bear hugging on the beach. A group shot in black and white taken at her daughter’s wedding that shouts with the sheer pleasure of friends. Still.
Soon after Graham’s phone call, she learned that they’d found cancer in her brain, too. She’d already started chemo. In addition, now she would have to start radiation treatments on her brain. I encouraged her to take one day at a time. One hour. Seconds, if she needed to. When you’re fighting cancer, the face of a clock reads differently.
I also told her what I wish I’d had the wisdom to tell Mama when her cancer returned. Don’t judge yourself. Cancer and chemo make you feel bad enough. Who needs a critic?
When a Friend Has Cancer, You Pray In Your Sleep
It’s the spring now, and while Graham continues her treatments, the rest of us help her as best we know how and pray. A lot. Some of the people praying she knows. Others she does not. I send her prayers even in my sleep. I remind myself that since she’s got her daddy’s genes (he died at 98), she’s going at it with extra ammo. Still, if I could take the damn chemo for her I would.
If I could take the damn chemo for her I would
Why some people beat cancer and others don’t, I have no idea. I’ve heard the experts in white coats give their take on this but, only God really knows. God, that is, and dogs. They see your soul. With dogs, you see them seeing it.
After Mama died, I used to wonder why someone who fights a disease with such force of mind, body, and spirit loses.
Now, at age 62, I think the question seems as irrelevant as maybe the answer.
I only know that for me, focusing on one day, one hour, one second is a good way to live. And may we all be fortunate enough to meet each moment the way Mama met her last. Strong, still, and sweet. She went with her eyes closed, wearing a small smile—reciting her favorite Winnie the Pooh story—word for word.