Thursday, May 2, 2013

#446: Friends, Family, and Warriors

Coach Rita, Renee, Marian, and Becky
Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one's nearest kin. ~ Proverbs 18:24 NRSV


My friend is pretty sick these days. Not so very long ago, she kicked breast cancer's ass and sent it packing. Then, last winter, she started feeling tired. Head aches. Irritability. She started missing exercise classes. For most people that means you've got a bug coming on, or you need to get more sleep, or you're not eating right. For a cancer fighter, it can be more sinister. It calls for the kinds of tests that you are inclined to put off until after the holidays.

So as winter settled in over the Bluegrass, Becky went to the doc and began the long detective work; searching for what was wrong. There were a lot of false leads. Some docs will tend to look for everything else first. It's not necessarily the best medicine, but it's just human nature. When you're treating  a cancer survivor, you don't want to deliver the worst news first.

Becky's bad news came after a lumbar puncture. It was there. In her spinal fluid. The Damned Thing was going after her nervous system. She came to work for a few more days. Let us know what was happening. There would be chemo. Again. No telling what other treatment it would take. But she would do it. From the very first, she was scared, but not cowed. Becky is a warrior. She will fight.

Closer Than Kin

It is difficult to think of Becky without thinking of Marian. I realized as I was preparing this post that I don't have any pictures of Becky without Marian close by. At work. In class. Shopping. At lunch. Marian and Becky were classmates when they went through LIVESTRONG at the YCMA together. They are closer than sisters.

While I was having my recent mental breakdown, Marian and Coach decided that I should not be told about Becky. I'm glad they spared me then. I'm not sure my mind could have held up under the news. Three nights ago, I asked Marian how our friend was doing. She could keep the facts from me for a while, but could never tell me a lie. So she took a chance that I was as strong as I said I was: she told me the truth. They've stopped Becky's chemo. It wasn't helping. She spent some time in the hospital. Now she's in a nursing home, waiting until she's sick enough to go back. They've contacted Hospice. Her daughter has been a Guardian Angel for her mother, protecting her, sitting with her, nursing her, loving her. They've decided to tell Becky only what she needs to know. Her mind is fragile, and she has days when she doesn't recognize visitors. Gets confused about where she is. I listened, my eyes moist with compassion and anger. Compassion for my friend's pain. Anger at the Damned Thing that had chosen such a beautiful and vulnerable target. Well, the Bastard was in for the fight of his life.


This is no eulogy. My friend is very much alive and very much in battle mode. Marian and I visited her the day after she shared the news with me. Marian warned me that it would not be easy. There was no telling who would be there in the bed to greet us when we arrived. She was sleeping when we came in. Pale. and a little bloated from the chemo, but she'd kept her hair which was a balm to her vanity, I'm sure. Becky loved to get her hair done, and there was no telling what color it might be when you walked into the gym in the morning. It's a lovely chestnut brown right now. At least it was on Tuesday. She slept peacefully, deeply. I took her hand and gently greeted her the way I always have. "Hey, Miss Becky." She didn't stir. The whir of the air conditioner and the drone of the television wrapped her in a blanket of white noise that my voice could not cut through. Marian, standing on Becky's right, tapped her hand gently. "Hey, Sleeping Beauty. Look what I've brought you."

Slowly, Becky's hands squeezed ours and her face started to awaken. Half a smile came to her lips as she saw Marian's giant smile. "I brought Bob Johnson with me." Becky turned her face toward me, peering through the one, beautiful blue eye that the cancer has left her. I wasn't sure what she was seeing. "Do you recognize me, Becky?" "Yes, Bob," she answered as if it was the stupidest question she had ever heard. Marian and I laughed and Becky smiled softly. Contraband was exchanged. Becky chewed happily on the Mounds bar Marian had snuck in, the dark chocolate melting on her fingers. She sipped water to help wash the coconut down. We talked about the Y. I told her that the whole morning crew sent their love. Dave and Gary, Dora, Bonnie and Bob, Ernesto and Beth and Teri and Meagan and Derick. I didn't mention Coach leaving. Becky's carrying more than enough on her shoulders right now. I told her about my recent troubles, and that I was going to be running a marathon on Sunday.

I would be running for her.

2012 LIVESTRONG at the
YMCA racing team
Would she like to come along? I was sure I could sling her over my shoulder and carry her for most of the way. She turned her head to Marian and rolled her eye. "Idiot," she seemed to say. We laughed again, remembering how proud we all were the night back in August when she finished her first 5K, the Midsummer Night's Run. I had pushed ahead, trying to break my first 30 minute 5K. I missed it by 3 seconds. Coach had stayed back with Becky, walking along. Struggling, sweating, and gasping. We pounded fists and celebrated with water and bananas when she crossed the finish line on that muggy night. She would not be walking in Cincinnati on Sunday. But she will be with me. One way or another, I'm carrying my friend across the finish line.

We sat together for an hour or so. Becky drifting in and out of reality. She was firmly grounded when we talked about the Y or Mrs P's work (Becky was a social worker before she retired.) Other times, she confused by the TV. There was a cartoon on, and she kept seeing herself and her friends on the screen. Or maybe she was yanking our chains. It was hard to tell. Her sense of humor has no cancer in it. It remains strong and healthy.

After a while, her eyelid started to get heavy. I couldn't coax her out of the TV world with my stories and jokes. Marian offered her another piece of chocolate, but Becky was sure that it didn't belong to her. We reminded her that Marian had brought it for her. Our hands had not stopped touching the whole time I was there, and now I felt her squeeze just a little harder. Goodbye time was coming.

We kissed and told her we loved her. Promised to return soon. I told her I had a book I wanted to read to her. It's called Naked Came the Manatee and it's about a sea cow named Booger. She gave Marian one last eye roll. "Be still my heart," she said with perfect deadpan timing. We hugged one last time, and made our way to the hall.

Marian looked at me once, her eyes rimmed with red. She hadn't shed a tear in the room, but now she was fighting them back with all her might. She is a warrior, too. We walked to the door in silence, then talked about our next visit. We hugged, there in the sunlight. It was a beautiful Bluegrass spring day. I walked to the car and called Mrs P. Time to go home. I made plans to go back Friday to start the Manatee book. I think she'll like it. At least my droning on will help her to sleep.

Metastatic cancer is a son of a bitch. It kicks you down, and then it keeps kicking, spreading, staying one step ahead of the doctors and their poison. I was lucky. Mine got to my lymph nodes, but we killed it before the express train to brain and lungs and liver left the station. Becky is not so lucky. It is spreading and growing now in places where nobody can reach it. Brain cancer is so cruel because it doesn't just attack your body, it assaults your self. Cancer could never break Becky's spirit, so he's trying to just obliterate it.

He will fail.

With all she has suffered, all the pain and fear and confusion, Becky still loves life. She loves her friends. She loves the blue sky that shines through her window. She loves the taste of chocolate and the gooey feel of her sticky, brown fingers when it melts in her hand. She laughs. She teases. She loves.

She lives.


I don't know what's down the road for my friend. Nobody does. Chances are that her travelling is going to get a lot harder. But I know one thing. She won't be travelling alone.

The last time I really cried, I was in the arms of my friend Terri. We were members of the first LIVESTRONG at the YMCA group in Lexington. She is more than my friend. She is my sister. "It's going to be ok," she whispered. "We will always have each other." There are a lot of people who love us, but there is a place where only survivors can go. There is a bond that only we can feel. Once it is formed, nothing can break it. We will always have each other. We will never give up. And we will never fight alone.

Becky would do this for me. We are closer than kin. We are survivors, fighters, victors. She would be there for me or Marian, just as eagerly as we are there for her. It's not just about friendship. It's about family.

Cancer warriors don't leave their wounded behind.


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