Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Universe is Not a Wish-Granting Factory*

One of my best friends from college was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

Her name is Beth and she's 34 years old.

She's married to her best friend (as in, they were best friends for years while they dated other people and then they finally figured out they were actually in love with each other--a case of opposites attracting). They have two little girls, ages almost-5 and 2. Beth works full time in a demanding job as a department manager at an upscale department store--the kind of job where she runs around in high heels and remembers to reapply lipstick and hosts trunk shows and has dinner with vendors who are selling clothes made by big-name designers.

She's a great story teller, she's hilariously funny and self-deprecating, and she's very devoted to her family. She's also sensitive, a good listener, and more than once has lent me her shoulder to cry on. In the months after Eliza died, she dragged me out for monthly dinners with our friends Jamie and Carol, and anytime I cried, her eyes filled up with tears too. When she gave Coco a baby gift, she wrote in the card that she was remembering and missing Eliza.

And she has breast cancer, you guys.

Specifically, she has triple negative breast cancer.

I can still hardly believe it. Even after seeing the place where the port has been put into her chest. Even after seeing the suture where they glued her up after removing some lymph nodes. Even after I gave her a chemo cap and she tried it on (over her still thick and beautiful auburn hair). Even after she texted me a picture of herself after she shaved her head (adding that she should have put on earrings and lipstick before taking the photo).

She bald, but she was smiling.

(She says her hair is her best feature, and she really has fabulous hair, but I think her smile is even better.)

Since her diagnosis, our group of friends has been texting and e-mailing a lot. What can we do? 

I don't know what it's like to get a cancer diagnosis. I don't know what it's like to face months of chemotherapy, to know that in order to get better you'll have to feel miserable.

Once chemo is over, she's looking at a double mastectomy and, depending on the results of genetic testing, possibly a hysterectomy as well.

All before she turns 35.

I don't know what it's like to endure major surgery. I don't know what it's like to lose your hair and to have your very bones ache from the shot that increases your white blood cells and to be so sore you can't pick up your toddler.

And Beth has told me that she doesn't care about any of the brutal side effects. She could not care less about the things that make me cry when I think about her going through them. For her, these things are minor inconveniences because she's just focused on getting past this and being around to watch her girls grow up.

I don't know what it's like to have cancer, but I can't help but compare our experiences of tragedy and grief.

I do know what it's like to get news that turns your whole world upside down and makes you realize that your life will always be different than you hoped and maybe even less than you had hoped.

I am familiar with the way fear and nausea combine until you can't tell what's a physical symptom and what's a mental one.

I know what it's like for that news to come out of the great blue nowhere. To knock the wind out of you with such unexpected force.

I know what it's like to have felt one moment like your life is in order, like things are falling into place, like you have finally earned what you've worked so hard for, only to be confronted by the desperate fear that it could all slip away.

I know what it is to consciously appreciate what you have, to feel so grateful, to know that you're lucky, and then to suddenly feel paralyzed by your vulnerability, realizing how much you have to lose.

I know it's not particularly helpful or comforting to have people say, "I can't even imagine" as though suddenly your life has become an incomprehensible nightmare they can't bear actually to think about. (I would prefer people say, "I don't know what you're going through, but I CAN imagine. And it sucks. And I'm sorry.")

I know it's not easy to hear people say, "You're so strong/brave, you can get through this," as though strength or bravery qualifies someone for tragedy or illness while the weaker, more fearful people are spared (if only!).

And yet, I've found myself on the verge of saying BOTH of those things to Beth--these ready-made, go-to phrases that come to me when I'm grasping for something to say in the face of speechless shock and dismay.

Instead, I make myself imagine. After all, I know what it's like to lose a year of my life to grief, and I imagine that in some ways you lose a year of your life to cancer treatments.

I haven't faced a cancer diagnosis personally, but I know how much it fucking sucks to have your life spin out of control and to realize how helpless you are and how scary life is and how quickly and easily it could all slip away from you.

Needless to say, Beth has been on mind all the time lately.

As her friends, we're doing our best to rally around her. The truth is that I feel helpless--I think we all do--and we just want to do whatever we can to let her know that she's not alone. Often when I pick up my phone to send her a text, I wonder if I'm bothering her, or when I talk to her, I wonder if she is tired of talking about cancer or if I don't mention cancer, I wonder if she thinks I'm not thinking about cancer.

(But I have decided to just text her anyway because I'd rather hear from people even when I was too exhausted to respond.)

Even though I've never been in Beth's situation, when I try to imagine what might help her, I find myself thinking about what people did that helped me when I was debilitated by grief. We're prepping freezer meals and buying friendship bracelets and sending up thoughts and prayers and good vibes and shaking our fists at the unfairness of the universe. We've talked about how we can't just show up now and then get busy in a couple of months--that she needs to know we'll be there for her as long as it takes.

(Sidenote: If our society treated grief like an illness instead of an inconvenience, it would probably make it easier for bereaved parents to cope--not with the loss itself, but with the reality of living life after loss. When bereaved parents are treated as though they are ill--people bring food, send cards, arrange for housekeeping, make donations to foundations in honor and memory of their child--I think we appreciate not only the actions themselves, but the recognition of the enormity of our losses.)

Here's side-by-side pics of our group of girlfriends who have stayed tight since college--the top one was taken at the start of our senior year of college and the bottom one was snapped last weekend:

Beth's the one to the left of me in the jean jacket in the top photo, and the one to the left of me with the cute pixie cut in the bottom photo.

As a group, we were not totally untouched by grief even in our college picture--my friend Stephanie (the tall one with the curly hair) lost her mom our junior year of college, and although I didn't fully understand how to be there for Steph, I think we had all begun to recognize that life had its share of sorrow as well as joy, and that our friendships would help us get through the hard times.

But I also look at those pictures and I think about how losing Eliza makes me feel set apart, even from my dearest friends. For a long time, I pulled away from them because they couldn't really understand what I was going through, and I couldn't expect them to understand. I resented the fact that my baby died while other babies were healthy and alive. (Not that I wanted anyone's babies to NOT be healthy; I just didn't understand why MY BABY wasn't here too.)

I needed their love and sympathy but at the same time, I didn't want to be pitied or talked about in e-mail chains that didn't include me, even though they meant well. I didn't want to be given books with titles that sounded too sad to read or food that I was too sad to eat. I was tired and sad and miserable and didn't have the energy to be a friend or really to care about anything besides the loss of Eliza. Honestly, it's still hard for me to see how big their three-going-on-four-year-olds are and to wonder if I'm the only one thinking about the little girl who isn't there.

But my friends stuck by me, even when it wasn't easy. And if we disappointed each other in the process, we've found a way to get past that.

In some ways, I imagine cancer patients might feel the same way. It has to be difficult, frustrating, maddening to be The One With Cancer, especially when the days Before Cancer are still close enough to taste.

And although we celebrate cancer survivors and cancer remission, I would guess that being a cancer patient continues to be a part of one's identity, even when treatments are successful and life goes on. Of course it gets easier, but I expect that fear of recurrence and the thudding recognition of your mortality never disappears.

I know that random and terrible things happen all the time, so we might as well ask "Why not me?" But the fact is that when statistically improbable things happen to us, we ask, "Why me?" because it's so damn unfair, no matter what.

I know some people believe there is a greater plan at work, even in tragedy. My faith is different now. I don't believe in a God who uses tragedy and pain to teach lessons. I believe that random and terrible things happen in this world and we find God in the way we choose to get through them.

In my mind, God shows up not to cause (or cure) cancer or kill (or save) babies, but in the love we find amidst tragedy. We find God's presence in nurses who know that patients need hugs as much as they need medicine, in the friends who call or text even when those communications go unreturned, in the fundraising efforts to prevent future losses**, in the friends and acquaintances and strangers who add our names to prayer lists and wish better days for us, in the people we meet through the internet who end up being our tribe of support and understanding because they are walking the same path.

I'm writing about Beth today because terrible and shitty things happen to really good people in this world, and we don't know what will happen, but I'm really trying to believe that love wins no matter what.

And yet. One of my best friends has breast cancer. And at this very moment, there are so many people out there in the world who could say the same thing. There is nothing that makes anything about this situation ok.

* This comes from John Green's beautiful book about cancer, The Fault in Our Stars. I read it last year, saw the movie this summer, and just bought the book so I can read it again. I know some people don't want to read a "sad" book about cancer. While I completely understand the emotional fortitude it takes to delve into certain kinds of books, I also think that avoiding reading material that is sad or emotional is irresponsible. The plot that you find "too sad" to read about in the comfort of your sofa is someone else's real life--a life they can't simply dog-ear a page of and escape. And the truth is that there is a lot of beauty that is worth finding in the middle of tragedy, fictional or real.

** If you have an extra $10 (or more or less) you want to contribute to a worthy cause, please consider making a donation to Pedal for the Cause. Beth's husband, Curt, is biking in the event and all proceeds go to cancer research locally at Siteman Cancer Center and St. Louis Children's Hospital.


  1. Wow. I have often said "I can't imagine" in times like this and your comments on it definitely made me think. You're right, it might not be the best thing to say. My thoughts and prayers are with your friend.

    P.S. I love "The Fault In Our Stars". Beautifully heart-wrentching.

  2. Love and hugs to you and your friends. Cancer sucks.

    It's also Terry Fox Run week in Canada, where all the school kids and marathoners and other people do walks and runs to raise money for cancer research. So people in Canada will be donating to that and remembering the (in my case, torturous) runs they had to do when they were kids in school for Terry Fox.


  3. I have no words that are adequate. None whatsoever. So much of our loss can be a common ground for understanding tragedy and dark times yet as you said, even with all we know we still find ourselves saying isolating things like "I can't even imagine."

    My heart shatters for your friend and for your group. That you are collectively experiencing this, at such a tender age and time of having wee babies at home somehow makes it so stark.

    Sending you love.

  4. Oh, Brooke. This post just breaks my heart. I hate, hate, hate the life struggles and challenges we all seem to be presented with and seem to increase in frequency in your 30s (maybe that isn't accurate, but it seems to be the case with my friends and family). I know life isn't "easy" (haven't we all been told that from an early age?) but it doesn't make the illnesses, the losses, the struggles, etc. any easier or make them make sense in any way.

  5. This is beautiful. And heartbreaking. And so true. I'll be thinking of your friend Beth and I really hope to be reading about her sending her kids off to college many years from now to meet wonderful new friends.

  6. It's horrible. The cancer and the fact that cancer strikes so calmly in such incredible people. And yet, shitty things happen all the time to so many of us.

    I believe the same as you do about God. Works through hugs and friends and nurses to be the sense of love and comfort. But the cancer? She's on her own for that one. Well, with the help of "God" through friends and the extra support.

    Wishing the cancer away as fast as possible and a big ass remission party for your beautiful friends. Hair or not, she's beautiful.

  7. I am sorry to hear about your friend. :( I am sure she appreciates your support -- which, having experienced your own tragedy, you are no doubt better able to provide than some of the other people around her.

    I'm also kind of envious that you have managed to stay in touch with all those women over time! As the saying goes, old friends are like gold.

  8. Love and light and healing thoughts to your friend

  9. You're a wonderful writer and even more wonderful friend.

    Shaking an angry fist, saying a prayer, and holding you close at heart, Beth.

  10. I'm really sorry about your friend. Tragedy does (hopefully) give us the perspective and wisdom to do better for others. It sounds like you're a good friend. It still sucks and for that, I am sorry.

  11. Another we know just shared a similar story, about a (newer) friend experiencing the same damn thing. Kids. Young. Wonderful person.
    Our daycare director's 13 year old daughter was diagnosed with a terrible cerebellar brain tumor for which she's currently undergoing her 2nd chemo treatment and it's pretty obvious that beautiful girl will never be the same. Ever again. Nor will her family.
    Because tragedy changes us. Even if our mental faculties and physical state are nearly the same as before tragedy struck.
    Thank you for admitting you've almost said all the platitudes others have said to us, because I find myself struggling not to do the same. I think of her all the time and don't know what to do either. You can only buy so many gift cards, contribute to whatever fund or event they're doing to support their daughter and the family.
    I've no words of wisdom, as I think you're doing exactly what she needs. Showing up. You show up and show up and show up. And ask what she needs and trust she'll tell you. Meanwhile, you show up. Sounds like you're doing that in spades.
    I imagine she's feeling pretty lucky to have you. And that she'll remember how you were there the rest of your life. As you will of her.
    Will add her to the list of Please, Let Her Live and Live Well. It's a list much too long, these days.

  12. I've been meaning to come back to this post, and leave some loving thoughts for your friend.. but I wanted to make sure I had focus and time at my computer to do so. Now I'm here, and I feel like I have no words of magic or wisdom to muster as something like this is just so unfair and horrible. What Julie said above is what I will echo as my original thoughts were similar.. you show up and keep showing up...and when you feel like enough time has pasted and the blow is over and done with... you show up some more. And you are. And you do. You are a golden person Brooke, and I hope Beth feels that in her heart and helps her fight this fight. xox

  13. This has been a page on my phone since I read it. I want to say so many words and yet they all escape me. So. I send light and love to you and absolutely to your friend. I wish I had more.

  14. I know I am late- as usual- but lately I have been getting really irked at the comment, "I can't imagine." And I wasn't sure why until you nailed it here. Hope your friend Beth continues to find her people- it does help so much.