I’m getting ready to attend a viewing today for my uncle who passed away Thursday from cancer. As I begin to iron my clothes I realize it’s moments like this that make me think about survivors and those who lost their fight. There is nothing more uncomfortable for me then attending a wake or funeral of someone who did not survive cancer.
As I put my make-up on in the mirror, I recall last year when my co-worker’s husband was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, which spread to the brain. While working I kept wondering whether or not I should speak with her about my own experience. As the day progressed I couldn’t even look at her. Finally, when it was time to leave I packed up my belongings and darted to the stairs. I went down the first step and froze. I turned back and went into her office.
I asked to sit down and as she stared into my eyes, I could sense both optimism and despair within her. Her eyes conveyed exhaustion, deterioration, and absolute agony. As I sat in the chair before her I felt everything I’ve buried for years. I told her briefly that I was diagnosed with cancer at 23 and have since been in remission. I told her about my family and the grief that they endured watching me undergo scans, biopsies, chemotherapy, and radiation. In that instant she understood her husband’s pain and I felt my family’s pain.
Unfortunately, our stories differed because the silent truth about cancer is that you can’t compare to one another. Slogans label us all the same, but we are not. She knew his prognosis was far worse and in my gut I knew it was too. As I got up to leave we both hugged and the reality was evident. My story would not be her reality.
While I was driving home, the thought to buy him a card popped into my mind and so I stopped at Hallmark. I scanned the aisle for the perfect one and also brought him a small token of Saint Peregrine, who is the Patron Saint of Cancer. I wrote in the card all of my tips and pointers about coping with cancer. I wrote about how much I understood his pain and loneliness. I even blatantly stated that he should make peace with himself and know that even when he feels alone he is being thought about and prayed for by a stranger. I placed everything in the white envelope and sealed it with a smile of satisfaction. I kept it on my desk and waited to find the right time to give it to my co-worker.
As the days turned into weeks, the card remained on my desk covered with charts and piles of paperwork. Eventually things got progressively worse. We want to believe that the people we know are the exception to the rule. But in reality so many people do pass away from the disease. He was one of them. I took the card and token that I never gave him and ripped it up before tossing it in the garbage. I was ashamed. Ashamed because I still couldn’t face cancer and now I was too late.
As I drove to her husband’s wake that week, my mind kept racing. I parked and sat in the car staring at all the family and friends walking in to mourn this man that lost his fight. It was that moment that my mind trailed off to the time when I was in graduate school and a student had just lost her friend to cancer. She sat down next to me on the sofa as I was drinking my Dunkin Donuts coffee. She looked at me with tears overflowing and in a very direct tone asked me, “Why you and not him?” I stared blankly at her for what seemed like hours. Finally, I mumbled that I wasn’t really sure. She asked the one question I secretly asked myself and could never answer. I got up and as I walked away I could feel the heat come over my body. I held the wall with one hand and stumbled until I found a private corridor. I fell against the wall and felt the lump in my throat. It was coming. I felt like I made it out of a car crash alive while everyone else died during impact. Why me? I buried my face into my knees and the tears became untamed and wild.
As I finished up my make-up I realized it was time to leave for my uncle’s viewing. I looked down and placed my hand over my protruding eight month belly. I smiled. I know exactly why I am here.