My friend Lily is having brain surgery today to remove a tumor. And if all goes well, ten days from now she’ll have a second, smaller brain tumor vaporized with a kind of turbo-charged super focused radiation.
Needless to say, this was not part of the plan.
Of course, cancer never is part of the plan, but Lily has already been down this hellish road. It started with breast cancer, which she soon found had made its way into other parts of her body. She slogged through a year of surgery, chemo, and radiation, and endless doctors appointments, tests, scans, and a host of other drugs.
And then one day she and her husband and kids hosted a huge ice cream social blow-out at their house because her treatments were finally over. Ding dong the wicked cancer was dead.
She spent the past 13 months cancer free. I’d get thrilling texts saying she’d just had a scan and it was completely and utterly negative. And we—her parents, her brother, her friends, her children, her neighbors who had delivered dinners and even cocktails—we all exhaled.
But recently she started having issues with her legs. When an hour-long walk had been a breeze weeks before, she was suddenly taxed after a 20-minute stroll. And when another scan blessedly showed her to still be cancer free, she got an MRI of her brain. And so here we are.
Or she is. Because as much as any of us want to go with her on this journey, share the pain, truly empathize, what makes me sob for my friend at times is the terrifying fear that must spike through her because this is all taking place in her body. Not even her husband who has no doubt felt immense terror, can know, can truly share, what it is she is feeling.
My mother had what I can only explain as a New Englander’s sensibility about misfortune. If someone we knew was gravely ill or if someone close to them had died Mom was a proponent of “not bothering them.” Sure she’d drop off a homecooked dinner on their front porch, but even a phone call she often felt was too intrusive.
And so, in the same way that I buy Tide laundry detergent and whole milk and vote Democratic because my mother did, I followed suit. Then when I was in my twenties my boyfriend, a long-term beau who I’d recently broken up with, died suddenly. And while I went through those first days in a miserable haze, people reached out to me—even when they said they didn’t know what to say (frankly, I didn’t know either) or all they could muster was the stiff, traditional “I’m sorry for your loss,” I was so so grateful. I could barely crawl out of bed but my answering machine was collecting all kinds of love and support and offers to “do anything—anything you need.” Even the calls I never managed to return helped me through an immensely bleak time.
So I changed my tune. I don’t worry about bothering people in their “time of need” any more.
The thing is that being the person reaching out can be awkward. Scary even. Even with a really close friend, through Lily’s rough patches I’ve struggled with wanting to say and do the perfectly appropriate thing, bring the right little indulgence to her, be the one she knew she could lean on in her darkest hour. And really, that all amounts to so much selfishness, right? It’s like wanting to get an A in friendship. It’s like making someone else’s problem all about you.
The thing is that I’ve learned so much about how to do all this stuff from Lily herself. She was a rock to me when my mom was sick. I don’t even remember the things she said or did but they were always so genuine and spot-on. When I’d be stupidly annoyed with other people, or when I’d act out and be inappropriate or too drunk or emotionally unstrung, Lily got it. Got me. Reeled me in. Helped me out. Was just there and unwavering. And so I want with everything, really everything I’ve got, I want to be that amazing friend for her. I want to find the magic lynchpin to set her free from all this.
And I’m so pissed off that The Big C has randomly struck her of all undeserving people.
Saturday as our kids decorated gingerbread houses in her dining room, devouring half the candy and gouging their fingers into the sugar frosting to even eat the “glue,” Lily and her husband and our friend Maureen talked in the kitchen. We got the in-person rundown on the treatment plan, on the decision about doctors and hospitals, on the wonderfully optimistic comments made by the surgeons and oncologists. And, true to form, Lily’s attitude about it all helped me. Even though all this crap is happening to her, she’s helping me get through it.
I haven’t seen her cry once during this. Not once has she pulled me aside to confess how terrified she is. She hasn’t vomited up an emotional tidal wave of fears about her wonderful young children and what their mother being sick is doing to them. And it’s not that I need to see that, but I worry about the things that happen when she’s not being positive and “we’ll get this because we have to” about it all.
She opened the door to her house yesterday wearing huge yellow foam Minnie Mouse slippers. They were utterly ridiculous, but totally perfect.
I hugged her hello and we both looked down at her feet. “We’ve got to have some levity around here, right?” she said.
Anyway, if you’re reading this I feel like I want to give you some assignment to help out somehow because I’m a huge believer of strength in numbers. What can you do? Send happy healing thoughts Lily’s way today. Or if you’ve got some extra anger and hatred on tap, send some of that energy towards those frickin’ tumors. Hung up on what to buy someone for the holidays? Consider a donation to an organization that’s funding cancer research. (Here’s one–and I’d love to hear of others that put money to good use.)
As for me, I’m going to do some version of praying my way through this day. And I’m crossing everything off my wish list. All I want for Christmas is for my dear friend Lily to be happy and whole and well.