My friend is quite ill. Just this week she was going in for a consultation for brain radiation for her brain tumors, which once stable, have now rapidly begun to grow. She is my age, with two teenage children, fighting cancer for the second time. Fighting to live to see her children grow to adults. She is a beautiful delightful woman; one of those people who listens carefully. She is real and truly kind. She is smart and brave. She has her moments when she wants to give up but she is nearly always positive, and she seems to have this part of her that believes with everything that it is possible she will live; despite what the docs say. And I believe her, more than I believe the oncologists.
There are times she will message me late late at night, in a panic, looking for words of comfort. These are the moments it hits, the panic, the pain, the fear; when you are awake in the silent darkness of the night, and you feel the panic swelling in your chest and throat like a balloon. Those are the nights you know you won’t make it. And you long for comfort.
What to say…I’ve confronted the issue of what to say a millions times, as I’m sure people have when they speak to me. Of course there are millions if articles online that talk about what to say. “we’ll get you through this”. Is a good answer. And also what not to say, “my mom, best friend, dad’s ex wife died from that”. (Bad bad thing to say). I’ve confronted the problem of what to say more than ever before, simply because I now know so many people living with cancer. Having cancer myself has made it harder, not easier, to know what to say–because I’m acutely aware of both the importance of reaching out to folks and the impossibility of touching the lonely place where they find themselves.
My friend is living what I fear most. I identify with her, and yet I am gratefully aware that I am not in the same situation she is. I am angry that she is not in the situation I am. That there really are no more treatment options available or her at this time, and she is still willing to do anything to live. All I could do was acknowledge the ways in which we are on the same path and be honest about the ways in which we are not, at least not right now: her children watch her go through chemo again and again; she continues to suffer the side effects over and over again; she must radically and painfully recalibrate the terms of her hard-won hope.
When I was first diagnosed, several people offered comfort with variations of the phrase, “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” Kindness motivates these words. They are driven by the desire to tell the cancer patient that she is not alone, that her condition is a universally human one: we are all mortal. Yet, it is the very glibness of the cliche that underlines just how abstract mortality is to the speaker. He does not truly believe that it will happen, only that it could; otherwise, the phrase would be unbearable to utter.
There is a difference between knowing that you could get hit by a bus and waking up to the knowledge that you have already been hit by a bus, that you didn’t die right away, but that your injuries will most likely kill you soon. We all know that we will die, but those of us with life-threatening chronic conditions live that knowledge in a different way. When well-meaning friends deny that difference, it only heightens for the cancer patient how lonely it is to be sucking on the bus’s tailpipe rather than glancing idly at its distant headlights.
I do not forget, however, I try not to get stuck and live the unrelenting knowledge of my own creeping mortality. Some days I am successful, some days that is not so easy. But I know as the texts and emails from my friend grow shorter and shorter that she feels alone and distant, playing a game of frogger with cancer busses each day, terrified of being splattered, And so, all I can say to my friend (and all I would want you to say to me) is: wherever this new therapy takes you, I’ll follow as near as I can, and I’ll be waving into the abyss that divides us.