Yesterday, Maureen finished the physical part of her breast cancer treatment. She walked the long hallway from the hospital parking garage to the radiation oncology department. Dueling within were those nutty, newly omnipresent emotions of hope and fear.
Who is Maureen? Actually, I have no idea. But I met her yesterday, and she told me these things. She stood in front of me, a good decade older and four inches shorter, both eager and subdued at the same time. And while her lips were moving quickly, forming words, her eyes were moving even faster, creating tears in the process, searching for ways to express everything she wanted to tell me.
Maureen couldn’t really say everything she wanted to say. For one, she only had three minutes until her last radiation treatment, and those technicians pack patients into their daily schedules tighter than sardines in a radioactive can; she wouldn’t want to hold them up or, God forbid, miss it altogether. It was her last one, after all, and what if the last one did the trick? Got rid of that very last cancer cell?
Two, she couldn’t say everything because she is, after all, only human. And she was looking at me, another human. We stood there, two humans who had walked that walk, literally and figuratively, to get treatment to kill those rather annoying breast cancer cells. I knew what she was not trying to say.
We are known as “survivors;” but we both have a hard time forming that word at all for the ancient, childhood fear of “jinxing it.” It's still too close, too recent, too surreal.
So although she didn’t really need to say anything at all, she had wanted to thank me and took the time to do so in the form of a letter. A kind radiation technician had read the letter, which led to her calling my friend, Meg, who performs her duties at the cancer center with limitless compassion. Meg called me, and we both went to surprise her at her last treatment.
Maureen wanted to thank me and Meg for the Hallway of Hope, a project most of you reading this now already know about. The Hallway of Hope features artwork from Henrico County Public School students; over 700 students, upon hearing about the attempt to turn the long, stark walkway into an art exhibit to brighten the days of oncology patients, took their own time, created gorgeous and hilarious pieces of art, and reached out to those who need their days cheered up quite a bit.
|Yikes! That's one stark hallway!|
The Hallway features 20 pieces at a time, so we (Henrico Doctors’ Hospital, Meg, and I) are looking for ways to hang more and more of them each month. I’ll write more about the HOH soon; it’s the grooviest thing going. That gross, long hallway was too much for me to handle; I didn't want anyone else to go through that loneliness, and it happened because everyone involved said, "YES!" to all of my persistent (and, likely, annoying) ideas to fix it.
Back to Maureen, Meg, and Me. So, we surprised Maureen, who made me feel a little like Taylor Swift--she was so excited to see me. “I can’t believe you’re here!!!” “It’s such an honor to meet you!!!!” “Oh, go ON,” I should’ve said, “Little ole’ ME?” Adorable, moving, and delightful (and not just for the ego boost).
|The theme? "What Makes me Happiest." For this young artist, who happens to be my daughter, it's her family. Note how incredibly sexy I look (that's me on the right).|
For Maureen, the Hallway did its job--it distracted her, it made her laugh, it moved her. But I’m not sure Maureen will ever know how much her letter, reaching out to us, and meeting her yesterday helped ME to heal, too. You see, my meeting with Maureen, a fellow breast cancer babe (see? that “survivor” word is stuck in my throat), came exactly 19 hours after learning that my friend, Vanessa, the strongest damn fighter in the world, had finally stopped fighting. Her breast cancer was too much, too poisonous for her tired body to fight any longer, and she waved the white flag on Monday night, March 28, 2011.
Vanessa and I were not friends in high school. In a class of over 400 students, we simply didn’t know each other, didn't keep in touch in the 18 years after graduation. But thanks to the modern technological miracle of Facebook, we had become each other’s supporters during our heinous adventures with breast cancer.
“Bye, bye, PORT!!! WoooooHooooo!” she had written on my wall the day after I got it removed from my chest last summer.
“You are an amazing, strong person who should NOT be going through this. Thinking of you,” I had written after one of her all-too-frequent crappy setbacks.
“Girl, let's just say I am fighting like a girl but winning like a woman!!!!” she assured me after I had expressed my concern for her one time, feeling helpless on the other side of the computer screen.
She encouraged me, she supported me, she made me laugh, and she made me cry. I didn’t know her, but she called me after my diagnosis to talk to me, answer my questions, and help me however she could. We weren’t best friends; we were Facebook Friends, but I needed her. I loved her. Now, she is no longer in pain, and for that, I am so thankful.
But I am missing my fellow Cave Spring High School Class of ’88 Graduate Kick-Ass Breast Cancer Fighting Friend.
The evening she died, searching for a good song on any of the abominable Richmond radio stations, I came across “She Talks to Angels,” by the Black Crowes. It struck me as odd, because it was on a modern alternative station, and a song from 1990ish certainly isn’t “modern” any more. I stopped turning the dial, felt every hair on my ape-like arms stand on end, and just knew. It was her time. Her friend--and now my friend--Leigh Anne called me a little over an hour later.
Yesterday, Tuesday, fragile and emotional and a little afraid, I needed Maureen. She and I have shared experiences we will likely never speak of, but the comfort in knowing that somehow made me less lonely. My other friend (you know who you are), who has become one of the best friends I’ve ever had, has walked the same walk, too. We don’t discuss our breast cancer, but we keep it tucked in our back pocket and take comfort in knowing that it’s there, in the past, where hopefully it will stay forever and ever, amen. If the contents of her pocket spill out all over the floor, I’ll bend down and pick them up. She’ll do the same for me. Whether I ask her to or not, she’ll be there.
No one asked Maureen to write me that letter. But she did. Is it coincidence that she handed it to me, told me I made a difference in her world just when I needed it most? No way.
Breast cancer sucks. It doesn't define me, but it does shape me. And occasionally, the hugeness of it makes me feel awfully tiny. Most of the time, I walk around in pretty good damn shape, feeling smarter, more spiritual, more able to laugh at myself and the absurdities of life. Every once in a while, I fall down, spilling the contents of my pockets all over the damn place.
I have a feeling that Vanessa, the rock star angel, will help me clean up my pocket messes, too. Right, V?