With This Chemo

“So, with this chemo, does it mean you’ve had a diagnosis of liver cancer?”

I was talking with a friend who had asked me to call. With that ask, I knew she probably had some very important news. We texted a bit before the call and that’s where she had typed “TACE”, and I looked it up online. 

“Yes,” she said, pausing. “Well, actually, I got this diagnosis a year and a half ago. They told me I had 4-6 months left and that I should get my affairs in order as soon as possible.”

A deep sense of impending loss set in, even with some giddiness hearing she had already outlived the predictions. I went back through my recent memories to when we had seen each other in person before I moved. And the videocall since I moved. 

Being me, I asked why she didn’t want to tell me sooner. Long pause with some barely hidden internal squirming. “I didn’t want you to feel sad.” 

I suspect, and may have even said aloud, that she herself didn’t want to feel sad by naming and sharing this news with me. Talking about it makes it real. Perhaps not telling me sooner gave her space to be her ‘normal’ pre-diagnosis self when we spent time together. Perhaps it is much more complicated and elusive than that.

She quickly tired and we acknowledged it was naptime for her. I shared my memory of having chemotherapy twenty-four years ago, and losing steam every day, suddenly and completely, often and frequently, and too damned much of the time. An exhaustion in every cell that had no wiggle room for being overridden. 

We ended the call and I sat for a minute. Letting this sink in a bit more. News like this doesn’t sink in all at once, nope. It takes its time, little by little, dropping shock waves randomly through the days to follow. Last ditch chemo with home nursing care provided by the local hospice agency. And according to her, she won’t try any more treatments. Done. 

I headed outside seeking comfort in the form of a hug after hesitating in the kitchen where I thought about eating which is another kind of comfort. I needed the hug comfort. And I knew this was available with Terry. There I relaxed into our embrace, gently crying, telling him about the call and my sorrow as we stood next to the raised bed we had earlier stripped of its dying pea plants. 

While I was talking with my friend, Terry was cultivating this bed. It was the first of this year’s newly constructed raised beds, and had been filled with some of that first truckload of topsoil we purchased early this spring. We had planted it before we knew that this topsoil needed help to mitigate its large percentage of clay. The peas did okay despite this dense soil that preferred to harden rather than crumble, and despite our planting a bit late in the year for their liking. This is our first growing season in Virginia and the planting calendar is significantly different from that for our familiar New England seasons. 

I was overcome by the urge to do something with these large waves of Death-Is-In-My-Face energy needing to be released. And there, ready and waiting as I stepped apart from our embrace, was the three-tined cultivating fork. I put both hands on it and started stabbing into the hardened soil surface, prodding and twisting to loosen it and make ready for our next planting. I was grunting and groaning and exclaiming how much I needed to do this. A most satisfying effort. 

And then I was done. That wave had passed through me into the ground, engaging my attention and many muscles and my cardiovascular systems and all that fresh air – all for the visible purpose of readying this garden bed. For more seeds. Which would become more plants. Which would feed our bodies eventually. And feed our souls every step of the way.

I remember attacking dandelions one year with similar gusto. It was an earlier time when another friend hit that invisible milestone of no return, when the scales are tipped and cancer has done so much more than alarm the immune system. It had taken root and taken over, leaving no room for the vegetables or flowers to compete and complete their intended life cycles. 

Weeds can take over a garden. We find ways to destroy them so that what we want to be growing can grow according to our preferences and choices. What happens so that the life of the weeds overwhelms the life of the chosen vegetation? 

That year the dandelions were popping up everywhere in my lawn and I was determined to uproot each and every one of them. I dug and I dug and I dug, pulling out dandelion after dandelion after dandelion. About the time I remembered that dandelions are edible and have medicinal qualities, I realized that all the dandelion removal I was doing would not keep death away from my friend. 

That was then and this is now and I still feel helpless to change the course of a friend’s life. I love this young woman. I love her spunk and her grit and her laughing in the face of horrors survived. I love her kindness, her creativity, her vulnerability. 

I hate cancer and the hope it steals. 

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