When my friend Jane was diagnosed with AML last year, I asked if I could go on the journey with her. I was hesitant to make such a request, because I worried about being selfish. We’d only recently gotten to know each other. However, I cast aside trepidation with the knowledge that there have been very few people in my life with whom I’ve been able to resonate on multiple levels. In short, I couldn’t walk away. Over the next several months we wrote and talked and waited. The conversations were funny, wrenching and always rich.
Jane left on February 6, 2011. She was 53 years old.
“I used to have no compassion for sick people,” Jane said one day. We were sitting in her hospital room, just after she’d begun her second adventure with cancer.
The sun was streaming into the room. Jane being Jane, there were already pieces of art on the walls. There was also a stack of magazines, books, movies and music people brought in—ostensibly so she wouldn’t get bored, but perhaps because scary diagnoses compel us to do something, anything to stem the extreme with tokens of normalcy.
“Enough!” she said.
I sat there holding her toe through the sheets. She had to be very careful with touch, as her immune system was shot from leukemia and chemo.
“Can you bring me some Puffs with lotion in them? My nose hurts already.”
“Of course, Sweetie.”
She managed to get up, dragging the IV pole with her right hand. I watched her enter the bathroom, her back exposed from the open hospital gown. I was awestruck. Not in the usual sense of the word, but meaning that cancer is the great leveler. It cuts through all superficiality, all pretense. There is no reason to be anything but real. Which might explain her preference for pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse.
We were chatting, Jane and me. Then the doctor came in. He was tall and handsome. She introduced us. From his pinched look, I knew he had news, and I knew it wasn’t good. I felt the panic rise, so I grabbed my Blackberry and left them alone. I stood watching from the nurse’s station. The door closed.
I didn’t know what to do. Stay or leave? In my rush to give her privacy, I’d left my purse in Jane’s room. I paced the floor, falling in with the folks doing laps around the nurse’s station, IV poles serving as standard-bearers of hope while they defied the storm clouds in their bodies.
I decided to go downstairs. As the elevator doors shut, I started to cry. The other occupant, a hospital employee, came over and held me.
“I hate cancer.”
I was to take Jane for her treatment. She got up late. I watched as she slowly, every so slowly, made her way through an arsenal of 14 pills. When I say slowly, it was like this: She would put her fingers on each one. Rest them there for several minutes and then gradually lift them up to her mouth. A pause before placing the pill on her tongue. With excruciating effort she would swallow, squeezing her eyes closed to force the thing down her throat. Grimace, sigh, repeat.
We stopped at Barnes & Noble along the way so I could check out sales for a book I was promoting. Jane came into the store with me. I was stunned by how weak she was. She was hanging on to the display tables in the center. Finally, defeated, she went into the coffee shop next door to sit.
The mood didn’t last long. Once back in the car, Jane brightened. To my great amusement, she began to argue with the GPS. The GPS, according to the woman who was (still) a hotshot attorney, did NOT know the correct way to get to the hospital. I laughed. “You’re arguing with the GPS? Really?” I looked over at her and she flashed me a huge grin. It didn’t stop her, though. She argued with the damn thing all the way into Dallas. She only conceded defeat when she recognized the towers.
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