So what do you say to a friend who’s been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer? Is there an anthem of hope, an offering of encouragement I ask myself on an otherwise ordinary day that now feels strangely odd and off kilter?
Sirens are going off in my head. My throat is clogged with awkward words huddled together and trapped. For someone rarely at a loss for words, I fear saying something that might offend. I settle on unsavory expletives instead, at least for now and in private — hoping to clear the passageway.
The timing is horribly inconvenient, as if news of this kind ever is not. My mother has just fallen in her garage a few days earlier and I am already tangled up in worry — wondering if this time I might not get her back. We’ve had close calls over the years: broken hips, shoulder, knees. Thankfully nothing is broken but her spirit. She promises me this is only temporary.
One moment life is fine and the next moment it’s not. Like an unexpected houseguest, I scramble to put things in order and make her world a tad more comfortable. Underplaying and minimizing her symptoms, reassuring her tomorrow will be better, I deliver food, treats and second helpings of TLC. My journal entries say something else. My insides are screaming.
When Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild” was released, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her story. Here was a woman in utter crisis — she had just lost her mother, her marriage and what did she do? She went from lost to found by walking the Pacific Crest Trail, challenging her own resilience and survival skills. In a moment of wallowing, all I want to do is run away and walk a secluded beach — me, the seagulls and a soundtrack of ocean waves breaking on the sand.
It seems that at this age and stage of life, there is always a rug being pulled out from under our feet.
As my mother’s health began to stabilize, Dan and I decided to sneak out for a quiet, intimate dinner. Walking into the restaurant, I heard a voice calling me and it was a woman whose name may not strike you at first, but when I share a few facts, you’ll be nodding that you know her, or at least her story. It was Lawanna Farrell, who was meeting her husband, John, and a group of friends for dinner.
Lawanna is the mother of Melissa Carleton, who gave birth last spring to a healthy baby boy despite being in a coma after doctors performed surgery to remove a benign tumor that was in her brain. Many of us have followed the family’s remarkable love saga on Facebook and in The Bee — a story of both joy and heartbreak. The baby, Nathaniel “West,” as he is called, is healthy and thriving.
Melissa has made progress but still requires around-the-clock medical attention, a band of angels watching over her and performing daily duties that keep her alive.
Lawanna and I greet each other as if we are best of friends although we have only met each other once, maybe twice. We share a mutual, dear friend. To onlookers, we are simply two women finding each other in a concrete parking lot.
Later that evening, her husband will come sit with us, the three of us talking a language foreign to many, unvarnished and raw but without complaint or apology — as if life and our personal journeys are perfectly normal. Tacitly, we know they are anything but. The comfort and familiarity of our tone suggests friends who have known each other since the beginning of time.
I read recently that joy and sadness are not opposites. They co-exist all intertwined and braided into the same day, the same moment, the same unguarded heart.
So what did I say to my cancer-stricken friend? I confessed the use of expletives. Admitted how the situation sucked big time. Told her that at times like this I wanted magic wands, miracles and the ability to rewind the night, undo the darkness. Return life to the simple, normal, mundane and ordinary. Laced through my words were love and friendship, the kind I hoped might annihilate cancer cells.
Alone in my writing studio, I finesse words while trying not to be overwhelmed by August’s unrelenting heat. I hunt down joy instead — joy in the face of illness, joy mixed up with sadness, joy in life’s small pleasures and fleeting moments, the kind of joy that arrives unexpectedly to save the day.
Joy in spite of — and because of everything else.
Armen D. Bacon is a writer and co-author of “Griefland — an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship.” (Globe Pequot Press, 2012) and a collection of essays, “My Name is Armen — a Life in Column Inches.” firstname.lastname@example.org, @ArmenBacon.