I Had No Idea….

One autumn season several years ago, I learned that a dear friend was battling cancer. Kathy had tried to contact me, but with all my social networking savvy, I’d failed to alert her to my new email address. It had been several months since we’d spoken, and when she didn’t hear back from me, she wasn’t quite sure what to think. And well, she had other things on her mind.

I discovered her email quite accidentally when I was cleaning out an old email account. And there it was….a month-old note from Kathy announcing to her friends, all and any she could connect with, that she was most probably dying.

I immediately called her and fumbled through an entirely inadequate apology for not being there for her. But, it didn’t matter. Kathy was just as bubbly as ever … simply happy to hear my voice and to reconnect with an old pal she thought she’d never see again. As we caught up with each other and she explained the hell of her past year and a half with rectal cancer, I was relieved to know that she had built an extensive support network through an amazing website called http://www.lotsahelpinghands.com. Through this wonderful site, Kathy was able to schedule volunteers to help with rides to and from treatments, grocery shopping, housework, and any other needs that came up. A year and a half doesn’t seem so long, until it’s all you have. For Kathy, it was a lifetime.

Woe is me
Sometimes I mope when things don’t go my way. I guess it’s one of life’s curses for being the youngest in a large family. I learned to turn out my bottom lip at a very early age. It worked for me for a while, until life showed me that it just didn’t care how pitiful I was. So, I’ve made a concerted effort over the past 20 years or so to retire the bottom lip movement. I’m better. But, old habits die hard. And, then I think of my friend.

This lovely spirit who never failed to make me smile and appreciate the beauty in life virtually had no family. Her father had died many years earlier and her mother lived in a nursing home in Connecticut, a prisoner of advanced multiple sclerosis. She had a brother, but it was a distant relationship, at best. Kathy had never married, so no husband or children to rely upon. She couldn’t work and, therefore, had virtually no income or health insurance. It appeared as though she had nothing and no one. But, I was wrong.

I really had no idea
I volunteered to pick her up and drive her home after a chemo session. Naive girl that I was, I had no idea that I could actually sit with my friend while she received the treatment. But, before I saw her, I saw all the others who’d been robbed by the same heartless, evil bandit as I waited in line to valet park….at the cancer center. Did you get that? Business is so good that they offer free valet parking, and even warn you ahead of time that tips will not be accepted….and they mean it. As tears quickly floated to the surface, I realized that I was angry that so many were fighting this battle. Wheelchairs were lined up along the drive as patients….most of them obviously gravely ill, some still managing to smile…..waited for their rides. I wondered how many of them were being picked up by family members, or how many were simply relying on the kindness of strangers trying to share a little hope along with the ride.

It was just so wrong, and I thought……were we eating it, breathing it, touching it? Had it been passed down through the generations from an ancestor we’d never known? Or had some unfortunate souls just been dealt a bad card in the hand of life? The sad truth is that, most likely, all of the above are true. Which means no one is safe.

It’s the little things
I entered the small but cozy area just big enough to allow a recliner for her, a sink, an extra chair for a guest, and the intrusive IV pole that held her healing medicine. It’s a good thing I knew her room number, because there’s no way I could have found her simply by peeping in each room as I walked by. I wouldn’t have recognized her. Her long dark beautiful curly hair was gone, leaving a perfectly formed shiny, bald head; her face swollen from all the treatments and jumble of meds that had invaded her body to scare out the cancer. But her smile was there. And it was just as sweet as ever. Kathy giggled when she saw me, squeezed me hard and said, “I’m so glad you’re here.” I felt my bottom lip begin to pooch and quiver, so I bit it hard, and stuck it back in where it belonged. We chatted and shared photos of our puppies and kitties, and my sons. She was the first to crack a joke about her illness and we laughed about how cancer was a real pain in the ass….especially for her. She had to laugh, she said. Some days it was all she had to remind her she was still alive.

The day 10 felt like 100
When her treatment was over for that day, we stopped by the grocery store on the way home. She wanted to keep doing as much as possible, she explained. She wouldn’t give in. She made no attempt to cover her head or hide the fact the she’d just come from chemo, her port for meds visible through the top of her blouse. She simply didn’t have the energy to care what others thought. She was saving it to make a new recipe for homemade guacamole, and focused her strength on making sure she had everything she needed. As we squeezed and prodded our way through the avocados and tomatoes, Kathy checked off the last item on her grocery list, and we headed for the fast lane with 10 items or less to check out.

I wondered why the woman in front of us was babbling something about “too many items to qualify for the quick check out,” until I realized she was feeling guilty for having made my bald, sick friend wait. As I looked at the woman, I realized how much she truly resembled the cat who ate the canary. Kathy just smiled. We shrugged our shoulders and waited for the woman to unload her mound of ten-plus groceries onto the counter. When it was our turn, the clerk quickly scanned the few items and smiled as Kathy proudly paid with food stamps. A young bagger with kind eyes looked at me and lingered for a moment as he handed me the bags. As we left the grocery store, I could tell Kathy’s energy was just about gone. Damn the ole bat and what felt like 100 junk food items, I scowled quietly to myself as we walked outside into the softening sunlight.

On the drive to her apartment, Kathy talked about how she wanted to see one more Christmas … with snow. Surely she had more time than that, I wondered. Earlier that day, Kathy had showed me her most recent CT scan, which indicated that her tumor was almost gone. She was shocked, but relieved, and clung to the hope that rested in that sheet of film. Her doctors were amazed, too. I was simply thankful to have my friend back and hoped I would have her for a long time to come. Surely she would beat this.

I dropped her off at her apartment, entering just long enough to help her unload the groceries, help with a few minor household chores, and meet her three kitties … her angels with fur, as she called them. She was so worried about her babies, and worked diligently to find each of them a loving home, just in case. We squeezed each other tight as we hugged goodbye and exchanged I love you’s. I told her I would see her soon. I did. Much sooner than I expected.

A season of hope 
For a brief time, Kathy moved into a new neighborhood in the universe of cancer … for survivors only. I was so excited for her, and hoped that many more would move in next door to her. She had so much to give, and more than happy to share a cup of sugar….or an avocado for homemade guacamole.

But, one dreary day in December I received a call from one of Kathy’s closest friends … a former employer who had found homes for every one of Kathy’s babies and had cared for Kathy as her disease progressed. She told me that Kathy had been moved to hospice care and didn’t have long. My heart broke. I hadn’t spent any more time with Kathy since her last visit. Something I will never forget.

I sat with Kathy in her hospice room, the lights dim, soft music playing. She had already slipped away into the deep sleep that often comes just before the last breath. I held her hand, read to her, and talked about the forecast. I told her that snow was on its way. I kissed her goodbye and wished her well, and thanked her for letting me be a part of her story.

On December 28, 2010, Kathy quietly slipped away. Outside, the snow softly fell to welcome her.

 

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