The Other End of Sunset

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It was a cold, windy night

Define Irony: A bunch of idiots dancing around on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash.
-- Sreve Buscemi, from "Con Air"

I think it's ironic that the XM station "Sunny" was playing "I'm only happy when it rains" during the drive home.

I think many things are ironic. But likely, I, like Alanis Morissette, don't know what the word means.

I do know a few things.

For example, I know that, despite my assertion that I have nice handwriting, in fact, my handwriting stinks.

// Side note -- several of you asked about the magazine with some pictures of me. It's the February issue of "Men's Health". Enjoy. //

More apropos, I know that I hate cancer.

I also know that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. I know that because JR told me. She was full of expressions like that. She understood that people are valuable both for themselves and for what they do to others. To us. Sometimes those people are there to help you learn something. Sometimes for just a time. And sometimes, perhaps, maybe, they are there forever.

Of course, it's tricky to know which one -- is a person in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime? I first heard Jeanne use that expression in a discussion we were having about a friend of mine who never showed up unless the friend needed something. The friend had played a big role in my life, and then gone missing, to all practical purposes. Jeanne was comforting me, by telling me that my friend might have been a reason, or a season. But was likely not a lifetime.

She was right. And I felt better, after a while. It usually took a while for me to understand. I've always been slow.

My value is in part because I write. And because what I write may make someone think, or do, or reflect.

In fact, perhaps all of my value is because I write.

'Cause we all have wings
But some of us, don't know why....

I was on a business trip when my phone rang. A few days before, I had noticed a bit of yellow in her eyes, so she made a doctor’s appointment. The call was that Jeanne had just seen her doctor, and the diagnosis was cholangiocarcinoma

I got that call. I hope you never do.

My first reaction was "What? What is it? How do you spell that?" As you can imagine, I hopped onto Google to find out what her diagnosis meant. As many of you know from reading here, cholangiocarcinoma is primary cancer of the bile duct.

As she drove home, we talked about what I was learning. Each fact we learned was scarier than the last.

That call was the start. But it wasn’t the end. The next week, her treatment started. We were blessed to have a great oncologist, and a really solid support group of family and friends.

She had chemotherapy, she had surgeries, she had several different doctors. Each week, new symptoms and ideas appeared, so we had appointments with even more. We immediately realized that it was hard to understand all the information -- doctors would tell us things, and neither of us would remember them clearly. So we started taping most appointments, and taking pages of notes; for each change in medications, we'd write a new set of instructions. Little things became difficult – many medication names are long seemingly random strings of characters, and a few have almost the same name. Which one did the doctor mean for us to change? I tried to make copies of these documents everywhere, so I'd have a copy wherever I was, but I still found myself unable to remember which drug was which at times.

Of course, given all the different physicians and kinds of treatment, it was hugely difficult to keep appointments straight, not to mention making sure she was scheduled for the right treatments first, and had transportation to get there. And each change had to get communicated to lots of different caregivers.

Her illness was hard enough. Even with great doctors and patient advocates, I was constantly confused and frightened – and I wasn’t sick. The terror and sadness were as palpable as the 8cm mass in her liver. The hopelessness we both felt at being so overwhelmed by all the information we were receiving made it all worse.

Her death was one of the hardest things I have ever faced in my life.

Looking back on it, I am amazed at her grace dealing with cancer. I’m grateful to have been at her side when she passed on, holding her hand.

And I can’t imagine doing it without such an immense support system.

I can’t imagine how people go through this without help; yet people have to do so every day. Who could provide the help – governments, companies, families, and religious institutions? Or all of the above? We need to work together to make sure that people fighting serious illness have the support they need to focus on what really matters – their health.

OK, I'll get off my soapbox now.

I was watching a TV show tonight, called "Cold Case". In it, the mother of one of the characters had cancer, and died of it. Their relationship was, I guess, strained. But as the mother got sicker -- and was approaching death -- she came to see the main character. The character had to go to work, but told the mother to call her cell phone if the mother needed anything.

That day, the mother died. Alone. It turned out that she had tried to call the character several times... on the wrong phone number. She didn't want to die alone, but was powerless. She couldn't find anyone to be with, and couldn't stave off cancer.

I almost went to work the day that Jeanne died. Thank you, Jeanne, for telling me not to go. I can't imagine the guilt I would feel.

It's funny the things that make me think of her. I was in a restaurant the other day, and I noticed a woman walking through the door. She was a brunette, I think. She was thin, and in her 30s, I think. But I don't really know. She reminded me of Jeanne. She reminded me of JR because of the eyes, and the way she moved. This woman's eyes were wide, and looking around as if she wanted to soak everything in. Not aggressively, not at all -- rather, she was almost diffident, like a little child looking around in a new room full of new adults.

Jeanne was like that, all the time. She wandered around in a world of wonder, with untold delights and treats, a little girl in her best dress.

This woman moved like that. It's wonderful to see that kind of unabashed innocence. The curiosity and hope that the next thing will be better.

I wish I had it.

There were big storms the other day. And a minor landslide in the field across the road. Just like the week before Jeanne started her chemotherapy. It was really stormy as she got sick, and there was a set of massive slides that ripped the hillsides apart, leaving big brown welts. Now, you can't see where that slide was, it's covered in grass, almost as if it never happened. Life continues. And so does death, I guess.

It's ironic. The other thing that Jeanne used to say -- life is long and life is short. Who knew that hers would be short.

I don't want the grass to grow. I don't want the wind to blow. I've learned much that I don't want to know.

On a foreign night in Dublin
The dust was on my pillow
When the raindrops started falling
--Nanci Griffith