Heinous Little Cells
This piece originally appeared on Medium in 2019.
If you ever wonder what you are made of, find someone who is partially made of cancer cells. Even better if you have known that person for a really, really long time. Your initial inclination may be like mine: joke, minimize, say baseless things like “You’re going to be fine.” When the reality hits and you understand things a bit more, you start to have “Oh, shit” moments. A lot of them. Your mind starts to zero in on little things: trying to remember the first time you hung out together almost 40 years ago (no memory, sadly), what it was that caused you to drift apart (many things), why you allowed yourselves to drift apart (stupid and certain that time was on your side) and what that damn tumor and its heinous little cells may be doing to your friend (a not-so-little thing, despite its small size).
If you want to move beyond wondering what you are made of, and actually start to find out, you’ll do something. You’ll show up to sit with her through chemo, because if there’s one thing you have very quickly realized it’s that the things you thought were important are not. And when the bright red medicine is injected, you will not flinch or look away. You will go get lunch while it’s happening, though, because she’s hungry and you know she is strong enough to get through it without you for a bit.
A little while later, you’ll take a ride to the beach in her new car, and you’ll wonder over her ability to not dwell, while you are asking yourself what the fuck is happening. Not the beach part- the cancer part. The chemo part. The startling red drug that is just one part of the cocktail. You’ll also think about how cocktail is an unfortunate and offensive name for something that is essentially a weapon. But, you’ll be happy to be at the beach, where the only sounds are birds and waves and your own voices as you walk and talk. It feels like a respite and you hope it feels that way to your friend, who you know has been pondering Big Things for 3 months now.
Robert Moses State Park: Home of Senior Cut Day and Mother Nature’s Majesty
Later still, you’ll stay up late and talk and talk and talk. You will laugh about things in the past, you’ll worry about the future, you’ll troubleshoot difficult relationships and you’ll watch each other’s faces as they crumble when you talk about the uncertainty. You’ll watch a gut-wrenching video and squeeze your friend’s hand while holding back tears and telling her she is never, ever allowed to watch that again. You’ll get up the next day, go to breakfast, to the mall and to see a friend. It will seem like a very normal day, but the undercurrent of fear and worry and the reason why this is happening will be omnipresent. You’ll hope she doesn’t feel your fear and worry, because you know she’s got enough of that without your help. You’ll realize that one of the things you are made of is the ability to Get Your Shit Straight when necessary. You’ll tell your squeamishness to kindly fuck off as you help, and not just observe.
All of this will be another startling revelation in this relatively new stage of life, and it comes along with recognizing that you can’t help someone feel less alone in illness, but you can help them feel less alone as they swim through its murky and turbulent waters. And you’ll wish that you hadn’t let all that time go by and be grateful that, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Doing better is the apology and you’re here for the long haul.
Stacy and I in Santorini, Greece, circa 2000.
And then you’ll be finishing up writing and realize you’ve written entirely in the third person. You don’t have to wonder why. Sometimes it’s easier to act as an observer. You’ll save your energy for when you need to be a helper again.