It was the day after her 43rd birthday that she first told me the news. Stage-three breast cancer. It didn’t really register right away. She texted me the results and I texted her back, “Are you okay?” As if she could even answer that. Of course she’s not okay, she just found out she has breast cancer! I shook it off. I couldn’t cry no tears would form. I felt numb. It wasn’t real. It was like she was a character in a movie or a play I was watching and there was this impenetrable fourth wall between us shielding me from feeling anything real.
The next day we spoke on the phone. She was in good spirits and seemed to be taking it pretty well. I listened to her and offered my help but she just laughed and said she found some cool silk-lined hats to wear for when her hair started falling out. She decided she wasn’t going to do the ‘wig thing’ as her friend who had cancer told her its painful and itchy. She joked about how she was going to buy large bottles of A1 sauce so that she’d be able to taste something after the Chemo temporarily destroys her taste buds. Apparently nothing has any flavor when you go through Chemo except for A1 sauce.
I was learning so much from her about Cancer so quickly. I felt myself catch my breath here and there. At one point it turned less into catching my breath and more into what felt like a heart attack. Finally, I was feeling my first emotion…fear. Fear that I couldn’t save her from what she was about to face. Fear that it could happen to me, fear of not being able to control any part of it.
Then she told me “I want to go dancing, you know get some folks together before I have to face this thing.” She wants to go dancing? I’m freaking out and she is cool as a cucumber talking about dancing. So, as best as I could, I rallied the troops through social media and planned a Diva Dance and Karaoke Party for our dear friend. I described it as a kick off for our friends fight against cancer.
We all got together at our favorite watering hole, Oak Street Bar and Grille. At least 60 people showed up wearing pink shirts, hats, dawned in pink boas, beads, and even little pink tiaras. One of the girls put glitter tattoos of the pink cancer ribbon on everyone.
It was wild. As I got up to the microphone to sing my first karaoke song, I felt another emotion…anger. It crept up on me as I found myself picking songs that allowed me to scream as loud as I could into the microphone, as if I wanted to scream the cancer right out of her body. But it didn’t help. So I tried to drink away the fear and the anger. I drank a lot. But still, I didn’t feel any better. The only emotion that remained a constant was…numb.
The morning after the party, I went through my camera to try and piece together the night. In all the pictures people are partying, smiling, laughing, dancing, singing and hugging each other. My friend had a blast and her spirits were high. Another feeling came over me as I choked down some aspirin to rid myself of a dreadful hangover…helpless.
The party was a great distraction but the next morning, she still had cancer. The reality of it started to settle in my bones and I tried to cry but I couldn’t. I felt so many different emotions spilling around inside of me- anger, fear, sorrow, helplessness, and even guilt- survivors guilt as they call it.
I started wondering what was going through the mind of her wonderful husband and her three beautiful children and how they were going to endure this experience? How were her parents and brothers dealing with it? It was too much to think about. So, I went back to the original distraction.
I grabbed my camera and looked at the photos that were taken from the party and this time, I saw something jump out at me. I saw…love. I saw our love for her and our support for her and I was happy that we were able to give her that. To show her that she is loved and supported. I also realized at that moment, as I looked at her dancing with a pink boa wrapped around her neck and a huge smile on her face just how strong she was.
In that moment I realized that the real love I was seeing was HER love and appreciation of US. How she put on a strong face for us, so that we wouldn’t fall apart. How she held her head high and didn’t let us feel sorrow for her, not even for a second.
In the midst of dealing with the knowledge of her cancer, she had the power to free us all from our pain, from our obligation to feel pity for her. The one thing she didn’t want was pity…or to be treated any different than she was the week before when she didn’t have cancer.
She showed me how to battle something that seems too hard to beat and she did it with a smile and a fabulous dress.
The coming months are going to be tough, but I know now that as hard as I will try to help her get through it, she’ll probably be the one keeping my spirits up. Looking over the conversations we’ve had over the past few weeks since she found out about her cancer, I am very confident that she is going to win this battle. And you know what? She’ll do it with a smile, a silk-lined hat and many more fabulous dresses. Because, that’s just who she is.
This story was submitted as part of the Writers 750 group short story contest: February Oak street.
This story is dedicated to my dear friend Christine Barrett.