I became best friends with someone on Death’s fast track.
That was not my plan. I had simply volunteered to do some driving. My schedule was “whateva” and her schedule was whatever the Mayo Clinic said it was.
Boy, can I just tell you I was nervous that first day I drove. I’d never been on a first name basis with cancer, chemo or the effects of either. Within minutes of getting in her car she had set me at ease. It was like some cog in the universe clicked into place and machinery started running.
We talked about anything and everything. The comfortable nature of our conversation surprised and delighted me. She is a direct and open person who says exactly what she thinks, how she feels, what’s in her head and her heart. That freedom unlocked my usually reticent nature and I opened up with an honesty I didn’t know I had in me to give.
IT’S A TWO WAY STREET
I became a pretty regular driver for her. She has been patient with me as I learned when to talk and when to keep to myself as she rides the waves of nausea or works her way through the gauntlet of pain for that day. I’ve became familiar with her body language which can tell me when her pain meds aren’t enough, or signal me that she might have forgotten to take her meds altogether. She recognizes, even through the chemo/cancer fog, when I’m having a crappy day. She manages to get me to talk about whatever is on my mind. And she listens as if my little worries are really important. She never makes me feel like my stuff is stupid in comparison to her incredible hourly battles.
She is a phenomenal listener. Sure she can talk up a storm and tell the most outrageously funny stories, but when it comes to listening, she is focused and following every word, even as a disintegrating rib grinds at her or one of her glass shattering migraines threatens with an explosion.
MISSING THE GOOD STUFF
Her kind of cancer, multiple myeloma, with the three out of four chromosomal deletions in her DNA chain, means she won’t be around to see grandkids born, will probably actually miss most of her kids’ weddings, will miss most of her youngest daughter’s teen years. It’s kept her from bouncing on the trampoline with her youngest which has really miffed them both. This cancer has forced her to look death in the face and prepare for its inevitability.
Most of us don’t think about those things if we can help it. We don’t plan our own funerals, pick out our own casket, make baby blankets for grandbabies we will never see, write letters for major life events in our children’s lives we won’t be there for. Those things are her realities and she doesn’t pretend them away. She talks about it all. Not only does she talk about death openly and with a resilient faith, she laughs about her life as well.
I could try to explain a situation where death sounds funny, but you wouldn’t get it. I’m not that good of a comedian. This is truly, utterly, absolutely one of those situations that you have to be there to get it. But I guess I can try.
PARTY IN THE BATHROOM
Before her stem cell replacement she had a grueling five-day stint in the hospital where she became intimate with the desire to die. The caustic chemical cocktail pumped into her to prepare her body for the onslaught of the stem cell treatment shook her to the core. Her hair started to fall out in clumps. Did she cry? A little, maybe. But what she did after that was call her neighbor’s son, who is a barber, and arranged a head shaving party. Break out the video camera, she said. They braided a bunch of little braids and then lopped those off for whoever wanted one, her sister, her daughters. Then she had him shave words into the sides, her and her husband’s initials with a heart on one side and her graduating class year on the other. Then they sculpted a bit of a Mohawk, spiked with some gel to complete the look. Photos all around. Then the final buzz and she was a bald woman. A couple of days later we located an electric razor to take off the last prickly slivers that were still falling out and creating a nuisance. She was smiling. How does she do that? It’s who she is.
BEATLES OR BEE GEES?
Here is another example of her humor. There were two ringtones I had picked out to use for when she called my cell phone. Couldn’t decide which one to use so I told her about each one. The first one is the Beatles “Help!” She knows she can call me anytime, night, day, for a soda run, a midnight ER ride, lunch, cleaning, errands, whatever. And she has, and I’m so glad I’ve been able help. By the same token she has been there for me in a hundred different ways. She has listened through job losses, kid challenges, money worries. She has loaned me her car countless times, paid for lunches beyond reckoning, filled me with diet Pepsi’s and been like a therapist to me. So “Help” by her favorite band seemed a very appropriate ringtone.
But then, I also picked The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive.” She heard that and giggled her signature little girl laugh. Staying alive has been her battle the past four years. She has fought and endured hell to stay alive for her kids, to stick around, to be here as long as possible for them. The fight has not been about herself, but about them. That she can laugh about a ringtone in the face of all that crap really rocks. That’s the ringtone she picked. So when my phone starts singing, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, staying alive,” a smile breaks across my face and I answer with joy, “Woman!! What up?” We crack ourselves up.
Nothing is quite so contagious as her smile. She has dimples that rival any Gerber baby. And her eyes are lit with mischievousness and hope. No one being around her would ever guess at her battles or believe that she is walking the shortcut toward death.
I think sometimes that Death himself will walk past and not recognize her. Maybe He has. Maybe the energy of her laughter has kept Him at a distance these past few years. I hope she can keep on laughing.