This past week I had the privilege of being with a long-time friend who is dealing with an incurable cancer. She’s been treated with every chemotherapy available but still the cancer returns.
I consider it a privilege because she included me in the limited time she has as her life is narrowing in. She’s getting things in order–going through her belongings, talking with people from her church about what she’d like for her service–which will help her children when the time comes.
We went out for breakfast. It was hard to see how she’d declined since our last visit; her face now puffy from an increase in steroids, more dependence on her walker, her bald head covered in a baseball cap. I was relieved that she was still able to remember things– even with her declaring herself in a ‘brain fog.’ I told her I’d felt a sort of brain fog with the disorganizing effect of the pandemic.
While I can be quick to jump into conversation, to ask questions, to take the lead– I knew from my experience with cancer twenty-one years ago that it helps to let that person take the lead; they will tell you what they want to talk about. If we can be comfortable with that then we can be less hesitant to be with someone who is seriously ill, someone who is dying.
My friend chose the eggs Benedict and I had the savory breakfast burrito with bacon and avocado; we split a freshly baked cinnamon roll. How nice it was to eat in the spacious patio area, taking our time to drink the rich roast of coffee. We’ve known each other since our kids were in school and now enjoy sharing our grandmother stories. Our conversation alternated between the changes in our grandchildren as they grow older to challenges our kids are facing in their careers to the latest loss she’s experienced due to the growth of the cancer cells.
She talked about how she becomes fatigued–so much sooner now that she’s older with an advanced illness.
“I just have to learn to take breaks and not push too hard,” she said, and recalled all the years she worked full and part-time jobs, as well as maintained a busy schedule of activities.
I assured her that we’d both worked hard and it was time we allowed ourselves to rest when we needed to. She wouldn’t be one to give in too quickly to fatigue or pain; if anyone would push past it–she would. What I felt she needed, which I’d needed, was permission to let go and follow her body’s lead.
After we’d eaten our breakfast and were into our second cup of coffee, she said, “I don’t have regrets. I’m really glad I did all that traveling. It’s good you’ve taken your trips, Connie,” she said, referring to my yearly solo journeys. “I couldn’t travel like that now,” she added.
We agreed we had memories of those places we’d experienced that would stay with us. They could be called upon at any time to help us through hard times; while going through procedures, waiting on the pain meds to kick in, or waiting for the first light after a long dark night; we had places of refuge stored in our mind’s eye.
The breeze picked up and a slight mist fell. It was time to go; my friend had exhausted her energy and needed a nap. Our visit had been good– real conversation and a delicious meal shared by friends.
After I took her home, driving down the country road with ditch daisies in bloom on the autumn day, I thought about how different my friend’s current challenges are from mine. While she wonders how the cancer will impact her body next, I wonder the outcome of my last date with the guy from the online site. We both look ahead and wonder what’s on our path, and we both know that like all other times in our lives, things can change in an instant.
I think back to her statement, “I don’t have regrets.” How powerful it was to hear her say that. How important it’s been for her to travel to various parts of the world when she was healthy and able to go.
Being with my friend, sharing that meal together, was a time I’ll always remember. It was life, and death, side-by-side and enriched by the other. It was facing fear head on and accepting that beauty and pain exist simultaneously.
Blessings to you in the week that is in front of you–wherever your path leads and whoever you encounter. May you have all you need for the journey.