On an overcast day this past autumn, I sat across a table at a downtown sandwich shop with my niece Wendy, sobbing. She was there to provide a shoulder and cajole me into eating the chicken-noodle soup that had become my staple since being diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer a few weeks before.
Luckily, if the word “luck” can be invoked in the same breath as “cancer,” the disease was caught at the cellular level, before becoming invasive. Unless preliminary tests were wrong, I wouldn’t die, yet gut-wrenching treatment decisions had to be made, quickly, and I was overcome with shock and fear.
Unexpectedly, a woman at the next table placed a small, torn piece of paper in front of me and hurried off. I did not see her face. Wendy and I stared at each other for a moment, disbelieving, and then I began to read the note aloud: “Here is what u need to ask: What are my options? For each option, what is the risk benefit? If I were your mother, what would u have me do?” The note went on to address the effects of treatment and quality of life, and ended, “God bless!”
The month that followed was a blur of doctors’ appointments, conflicting opinions, and two surgeries only a few weeks apart. Along with my stoic husband, whose wedding vows 42 years earlier cemented his commitment, my sister, five years my senior and healthy herself, never left my side. She sat in waiting rooms for hours, hosted drive-thru lunches in her car, argued with technicians on my behalf, raced to the ER when a complication arose, and visited a hospital store selling mastectomy producted when I could not bear to go myself. We sat like conjoined twins awaiting the follow-up news from the breast oncologist, and then wept as one when told the cancer was gone.
My brave friend Sharon Bassett, who died from breast cancer at age 55, once told me her doctor visits were like a clown car, all of her loved ones piling in to prop her up. She said the devotion meant everything, but I needed my own experience to understand why. Anyone can say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” but it takes truly giving souls to sense a person’s needs and act.
It may sound silly and trite, but such kindnesses are the meaning of life. They are what transport us out of our misery and self-pity and shore us up to fight another day. They keep us company, make us laugh, and bolster our confidence. I always knew my cadre of friends and family were loyal and loving, but their benevolence in a time of crisis showcased a level of compassion I did not expect—and will never forget.
There were too many kind acts to cite, but I won’t forget my surgeon’s hug or the woman with a sick husband who let me in front of her at the ER desk, the nurse who said I didn’t have to look when the dressings were removed, or our doctor friends who got me in to the best specialists in town, no questions asked. I still remember this company’s CEO in the recovery room, feel the oncologist’s hands holding mine, and see my assistant’s one-line e-mail: “I love you.”
My friend Charlie left a voicemail singing a country song he had written decades before, ensured that the bouquet his family sent had no carnations, and from his home in D.C. overnighted a gift a day, my favorite a rare James Whitcomb Riley poem. A sugar cream pie from my stalwart friend Sue appeared in my mailbox, and my niece Hannah delivered black-bottom cupcakes, a small bottle of tequila, and a note saying, “Get your own pain pills. I need mine.”
Wendy came with a steady supply of McDonald’s Diet Cokes—my weakness sick or well; soup, soup, and more soup; and a batch of delectable chopped liver to ward off anemia. And my close friend Ann babysat my ill-behaved cat, even when the beast chewed on her hair; brought dinner and a journal filled with tantalizing empty pages; and called every 48 hours like clockwork, no matter where in the country she was. The parking-garage attendant at my doctor’s building got so accustomed to seeing my sister and me that he let us leave for free, and when my husband carried out dinner from Capri, the owner, fretful upon hearing of my condition, wouldn’t let him pay.
My best get-well gifts were DVDs of the TV series Breaking Bad, a riveting time-killer if there ever was one, and a lovely ceramic tray with hand-painted flowers, more useful and original than the fresh-cut variety. My physician-niece Emily brought a bagful of pink breast cancer–awareness goodies, making me feel fortunate to be a member of the sisterhood of survivors, and friends delivered enough books to fill a library shelf. And chocolate and six flavors of ice cream, it turns out, really are therapeutic.
I was both touched and embarrassed by the round of applause I received from my work colleagues on my first day back, and I choked up when a male co-worker, unable to make eye contact, handed off a Kit Kat bar affixed with a deftly designed Post-it Note. The most meaningful tribute comes this month, when a team from IM walks in the 5K Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure to honor me and the many others affected by breast cancer. When a sweet staff member apprised me of their plans and asked for my involvement, I panicked, picturing my unfit, skinny self trudging along the route behind everybody else. “No, no,” she said, offering a gentle pat. “It’s for you, not with you.”
The team that gathers at Military Park on the 21st deserves thanks and admiration. For me, adequately giving back to the walkers and my family and friends and the stranger who wrote the note is simply impossible. All I can hope for is that if the situation calls for it one day, I will be just like them.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach.
This article appeared in the April 2012 issue.