When cancer strikes a loved one

Posted April 17, 2012, at 3:39 p.m.

Last May I got a message on my phone telling me that a dear friend, my oldest in the city, had been taken very suddenly, very seriously ill: She had been setting up a new laptop at her place upstate when the words on the screen seemed to disappear. When she called the computer help line, she found she could no longer speak. A stroke, people were thinking. The person who left me the message assured me she was in no pain and said that she was being moved to a hospital in the city for tests. While the whole message was upsetting, somehow it was the “being moved” that soured my stomach and, while my eyes remained dry, suddenly shifted my breathing to sobs.

Once she had been moved, doctors at the hospital in the city said that it hadn’t been a stroke, it was a tumor, and that they would have to do surgery, the news from which would “either be very good or very bad.” It was very bad: The tumor indicated Stage 4 brain cancer.

As devastating as the news was, at least some of it was good: Enough of the tumor had been removed that she would regain her speech and memory, which she did in astonishing jolts: One day she suddenly remembered all her passwords. It tempted those of us around her to a kind of hope, yet a hope always tempered by the most sober reality. As soon as we had the results from surgery, I began Googling “blastoma,” and I think it was Wikipedia that told me the prognosis was 14 months.

That was 11 months ago. The cancer has remained resilient through radiation, several rounds of chemo and endless rounds of prayer and positive thinking. The latest MRI scan showed that the tumor had not grown since the previous MRI, which sounded good, but it also showed two new tumors in another part of the brain. The oncologist said that the new tumors weren’t important, although it’s hard for a layperson to imagine an unimportant brain tumor. I suspect he meant that the new tumors are unimportant in relation to what we’ve come to call the Main One. It’s the Main One we’re all afraid of; it’s the Main One everyone’s watching to see what it does next. It’s the Main One we wish would just go away.

And I mention that it was 11 months ago not to indicate that time is trickling away, that some dreadful stopwatch is ticking behind every visit, every e-mail. For one thing, the stopwatch has of course been ticking all along — we just choose not to hear it — and, for me at least, was actually ticking louder back in my 20s and 30s, when I was acting as though I would live forever. Then AIDS and a mid-size cemetery of dead friends abruptly disabused me of that notion, and I’ve heeded the ticking ever since.

But my sense of the past 11 months — and, I imagine, of however many months are still ahead — is not so much of time slipping away, actually, as of time vanishing entirely.

My visits with my friend are necessarily brief. She’s tired, always incredibly tired, exhausted by drugs, doctors’ visits, life in general. She tells me about whatever treatment she’s currently on, how it’s different from the last one and the one before that.

She tells me about the drugs she’s taking, tests being done, platelet counts. She tells me how tired she is. I tell her about stupid things at my day job; I tell her how my book is coming along. I tell her she looks tired and I should go. I tell her I love her. She tells me she loves me, too.

We both say how awful this all is. And there’s sorrow in the room, of course; there’s sorrow and rage and even a kind of murky wonder. There’s all manner of feeling in the room, but not drop of sentiment. Sentiment depends too much on reminiscence, is tied too much into time. And time is nowhere in the room. It’s not allowed in. I’m not doing a countdown on our visits together, our minutes, our seconds, our breaths. I’m not keeping track.

On the contrary, each time I see her, each time she smiles, each time worry overwhelms her, I’m reminded that friendship, at its best, has moments of truth and fragile human beauty that, rightly viewed, properly perceived, brush against the eternal.

Essmann is a freelance writer living in New York. He is currently working on a novel.

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