by Zinta Aistars
When I heard the dark news that my friend ... I'll call her Helen ... had been diagnosed with advanced cancer, stage 4, my heart sank. No. Nothing else, just .... no. I can't accept this. She is too young; we are of similar years. She is too vital, too bright, too full of life. But buck up, I thought next. This isn't about me and my feelings, slunk into a pit as they are. This is about my friend. I need to let her know my thoughts and prayers are with her, even if my faith is shaky.
I slipped out of the office over my lunch hour to go see her. I work for a health care organization. She was just down the street for her chemo treatment. One of the best places around, I knew this from the inside out. At least this, that she was in good hands. I walked down the street in the chill winter air, my face tingling from the frosty breeze. I was greeted at the door by another staff member who asked how she might help me. I told her my friend was here for a chemo treatment, and she walked me to the elevator, directed me to the third floor.
The last time I'd been through some of these rooms was during open house; the building was quite new, and still as impressive to me as the first day I'd seen it. But the people coming through then were smiling, cheering, ready to pop champagne corks at such a fine new facility. Today, every room I passed was filled with gray faces, quiet people, people leaning in close to each other to whisper comforting words, or simply staring into space, contemplating each their own prognosis.
I had no idea what to expect. I knew next to nothing about this particular kind of cancer. And it had been a while since I'd seen my friend. Our lives had been moving steadily in different directions. I was pointed in the right direction by yet another nurse, and then, there she was. Helen was seated in what looked like a lounge chair, a couple of IV bags dripping clear liquid into her. Family members were close to her, either side, as if to protect her.
She saw me. She smiled. It was fully Helen's bright smile, the same, like sunshine, and she stood up to hug me.
"This sucks!" I said with utmost eloquence, slumping into the chair beside her.
She grinned. "Yeah. Sucks."
Like a curious child with no manners, I asked too many questions. I wanted to understand. I wanted to share a little tiny corner of her experience by understanding. She explained, told me the process, talked of kind-hearted doctors who struggled to give her the bleak diagnosis. She pointed to the places in her body where this inexplicable nastiness had made its appearance. Here, here, here, here ... she pointed eight times.
She talked about the importance of faith. Of family support. Of the warmth of friends and the kindness of strangers. She spoke of the small comforts in her life. She spoke of plans. She spoke of hope.
I listened and realized what was happening here: Helen was cheering me up. I came here unhappy, and she was making me feel lighter again. Her eyes were big and bright, as always. Her cheeks were pink. Her enthusiasm was keen as we turned to other topics, talking of politics and current campaigns. I'd always respected her sharp and keen insights, and I was soon rattling on to her about watching the State of the Union address the other night, asked her thoughts on health care reform, on the job market.
Her chemo drip was done, and she was up out of her chair like a shot. It was time to go, and we hugged again, talked about having dinner to catch up, perhaps in the spring? Yes. We had unfinished business, conversations started but not done.
On my way out, just before I slipped out the door, I nearly crashed into Sister Sue. She was our hospital angel. A four-time cancer survivor herself, she now worked here, an elderly woman with an indomitable spirit and unbeatable faith, giving hope to those without. I put my hand on her arm.
She stopped, her pretty face framed in gray curls turned in instant attention.
"Are you by chance here to see Helen?" I asked.
Sister's mouth suddenly turned into an O. "Helen! Oh my! I'd nearly forgotten!" Then she looked at me again, even more intently. "God must have put you in my path just now. I knew I had to stop here to see someone, but I had forgotten ... and I would have gone home tonight, remembered later, and felt just horrible ... yes, God put you here. Show me to her?"
I led Sister back to the chemo rooms, where Helen was pulling on her coat. Sister enfolded Helen in her warm arms and the two women fell into instant chatter, as if old friends, already sharing a bond of a battle waged and won.
I slipped quietly away. I walked back to my office, thinking about the two of them. Sister had beaten this disease four times. Four times. I flushed. I hadn't been any comfort at all to Helen. I was just stoopid with wonder at this inexplicable ... thing ... that was happening to her. I was sure I had said and done everything wrong. It made no sense to me, this senselessness. What would I do facing such a prognosis? Give up? Shake my fist at the heavens? Scream bloody murder? Sit quietly, falling into a deep silence? Fight?
God put you in my path, Sister had said. I figured God was too busy to notice my whereabouts, place me anywhere, let alone in some strategic place. But maybe? For if I was better at talking politics than hope, Sister was hope embodied. Wherever she went, she left a shiny and golden and gleaming trail of it. Her hugs alone were medicine.
What do I know? I came here to cheer Helen, but Helen cheered me. Simply by being Helen. Those big, bright eyes I well remember, that smile, that girlish giggle. Suddenly I knew it: Helen was going to be all right. One must fight, yes, but one must also let go, let God, and God knew what He was doing. He put us into each others' paths to stumble strategically, He put one lost soul into the way of one found so that another might know comfort. All like an intricate dance by a master choreographer.
Believe or not, it mattered little. I believe in hope. I believe in the winning of wars. I believe in girlish giggles. I believe in the power of a faith that holds a heart steady and strong. I believe in my own stoopidity when it comes to matters bigger than I. I believe I don't know. That I will never know. How these things work. But I am marking a date on my calendar in late spring: dinner with Helen.