A little over a year ago, you were diagnosed with breast cancer. People often use the word “life-changing” for things like this, and though it sounds a bit cliché and trite, that is the only word that seems to fit right now.
I need to apologize for the considerable delay in writing all that will follow. I usually turn to writing as a way of sorting through my emotions, of trying to make sense of a senseless situation, but since your diagnosis, I have written very little about it. I’ve avoided the subject though, because the story isn’t really mine to tell. You are the one who has lived it, who is living it. You are the one for whom the term “life-changing” accompanies this experience, not me.
As soon as the diagnosis came, your entire world shifted on its axis, and in turn, so did the worlds of those who love you. Thrust into a new landscape, we were treading through uncharted territory. Though we’ve known each other for 30 years and our friendship has been through some serious shit, it has not been through anything as shittasticly shitty as cancer.
Not surprisingly, when you first told me that it might be—and then that it was—cancer, many of the questions that came to mind were medical in nature. What stage? What’s the prognosis? When do you begin treatment? Other questions were more practical. What do you need? How can I help? When can I visit?
But there were also all the unspoken questions that lingered heavy in the air, infusing every conversation with the knowledge that there will forever be a “before” and an “after” to our relationship. How will this affect our friendship? Will it change us? Will I be the friend you need me to be, or will I somehow fall short? And, perhaps scariest of all, will you be OK? Like live-to-be-an-old-lady OK?
Of course, the weightiest questions weren’t mine, but yours, and I was simply a conduit through which the questions were voiced. You asked me if I thought you needed a second opinion (answer: yes). You asked if you should get a double mastectomy or single (answer: I have no idea). You asked about the etiquette on cancer gifts, whether you needed to send a handwritten note right away (answer: No, you’ve got a pass). And you asked one of the hardest questions of all: Is this happening to me? Is this REALLY happening to me?
I hated that we lived so far away from each other, though we texted on a daily—sometimes hourly—basis. Sometimes I raged with you. Sometimes I asked more questions in return. Sometimes I wrote “I love you” or “goddamn stupid fucking cancer,” depending on the situation. When we talked on the phone, I listened and cried. You would tell me to stop, and I stopped. Then we would go on talking like usual, except that “usual” included words like port and mastectomy, information about biopsy results, and chemotherapy schedules.
When I stayed with you during your first round of chemo, the first thing you asked was, “Do you want to see them?”
“Hell yeah!” was my immediate answer, and we sneaked into your walk-in closet so you could disrobe. Your body was beaten and wounded, but you, you were more powerful and beautiful than ever, a cancer-killing, shape-shifting superhero. A few months later, just before your final reconstruction surgery, you asked if I wanted to see what they looked like, and my answer was again “Hell yeah!” We raced off to the restaurant bathroom like two giggly teenagers where you lifted your shirt, and we debated size, shape, and softness. You no longer looked beaten and wounded, but you still looked powerful and beautiful.
Since your diagnosis, I have worried constantly about bringing up my own trivial questions and problems. Do I have a right to complain about my children or job stress? Do you want me to ask you for fashion advice anymore, knowing that in the grand scheme of things which shoes I take on vacation are of absolutely zero significance? Does any of this really matter?
I wish I could say that there weren’t questions with a trace of doubt and second-guessing, but it would be a lie not to admit to having those thoughts as well. I wondered why you cared so much about your hair and continued to use the cold caps even though they made you so sick. Isn’t your body going through enough? I wondered. Don’t you feel beautiful enough, strong enough, loved enough without hair? But in the end, those weren’t my questions to answer, much less ask. The only questions I needed to ask were: How can I bear witness to your pain? How can I hold space for the discomfort? How can I make things a little bit easier?
I’ve learned so much in the past year since your diagnosis. I’ve learned that a string of expletives, a well-timed joke, or a shared silence can bring more peace than the oft-cited but sterile “everything happens for a reason.” I’ve learned the difference between a port and a drain. I’ve learned that a woman’s definition of beauty may be influenced by society, but is honed from within.
But most importantly, perhaps, I’ve learned that I shouldn’t have feared the questions or their lack of answers. In fact, I should have welcomed the questions, pressing harder, never fearing to say what needed to be said.
And so, though these words come later than they should have come, I am telling you now that I promise to ask my questions, listen to yours, and muddle through them with you—not because we need to find answers to all of them, but because it is in the questions that we show up, offer love, and bear witness. It is in the questions that we learn. It is the questions that we love. It is in the questions that we live.
And so I have one more question for you. It is the same question that has been asked since the beginning of time. This question has been asked by a million voices in a million languages in a million different ways. It is the only question in which, by asking the question in the first place, we begin writing our answer: Can this—whatever this is—make us stronger and change us for better?
In other words, how can we build something beautiful out of this?
Perhaps we already are making something beautiful out of it.