Back then, when it was all happening, I didn’t know about Barbara Abercrombie’s book, Writing Out the Storm. But somehow, that’s what I did. It was the summer of 2007, the storm was cancer, and I wrote through it.
Rewind to May, 2006. A dear friend—we’ll call her Sarah—called me at 10:00 on a Saturday morning and upended my world with the news that had already upended hers: she had ovarian cancer. Stage 3. Metastatic. She’d found out the day before. She knew ten o’clock was early for me, but she didn’t want me hearing it from anyone else.
As her friends, we rallied. We cleaned her house before her parents arrived on Tuesday. (She wasn’t sure if her husband—we’ll call him Dan—would want us to come and clean. I told her to tell him that he had two choices: let us clean the house, or do it himself.) Monday night, we were there, cleaning and talking about things like whether, when her hair grew back after chemo, it would be curly like her youngest daughter’s.
Fast forward a few weeks. Post-announcements, post-hysterectomy, post-hair due to the chemo. When I brought over lunch one day, she asked if I minded if she took off her wig because it was so hot. As always, her concern was for someone else’s comfort. When I was leaving, she followed me out onto the front steps and closed the door behind us so her family wouldn’t hear. She said she wasn’t ready to die, she wasn’t done being a wife and mother. She was forty-one, and she hadn’t finished what she needed to do. I wish I could say that I had some wise, profound words for her, but I didn’t. Instead, I mumbled some inanity about how God would know when she was done. I’d give anything now to take those words back.
That summer, I did what I could for Sarah and her family. I brought food, I ironed their laundry, and I cleaned their house. As I cleaned her room while she slept, basin by her side, it occurred to me how much you’d have to trust someone to let them into your home this way. A germ of a story began to emerge, and eventually I wrote about a man who was badly injured and his family, not knowing any better, asked his lunatic ex-girlfriend (who hadn’t taken the breakup well) to help out while their housekeeper was away.
She finished chemo in October. For a time, all seemed well. Her hair grew back. Life returned to normal. I had less time to write. We hoped.
But then came the spring, and with spring came the cancer again. I called her from the Mass Pike when I was driving my cat up to Boston—Bobbi had cancer, too, and the veterinary oncologist was going to assess her. Sarah tried to be upbeat about her own prognosis, but I heard the worry in her voice. The veterinary oncologist said they couldn’t do anything for Bobbi. Sarah’s doctors weren’t as blunt, but they weren’t much more encouraging.
Summer arrived nearly unnoticed. The chemo wasn’t working this time. One time when she was in the hospital, a group of us gathered in her room to have Girls’ Night. We brought manicure kits and CDs of A Prairie Home Companion’s Pretty Good Jokes, and we gave her a manicure and pedicure. She chose bright red polish. She wore that polish for the rest of her life.
Not long after that, on a Saturday in the middle of July, Dan called. He was taking the two older kids up to camp the next day, and would I mind going over to the hospital to keep Sarah company. Of course, I said. The next morning, I walked into her hospital room to find her doctor with her. He’d come back early from vacation, because the covering doctor called him to say things weren’t going well. Less than an hour before I walked into her room, the doctor told her that they were out of options. He estimated she had three months left. We didn’t know then that he was off by more than half.
It was a long, long day. She called her parents and her brother. She reached Dan on his cell. I stayed with her except when she wanted me out of the room so she could talk to her family. We talked. We held hands. We cried. She scooched over in bed to make room for me, and we dozed as we watched “Pride and Prejudice” on her portable DVD player. We went out onto the fifth-floor courtyard, and one of the nurses made us spritzers with cranberry juice and ginger ale. Finally—it must have been close to seven o’clock—Dan appeared in her doorway. I slipped out. Neither of them noticed.
By that time, I’d started writing as my way of coping. I spent hours on the porch, laptop in my lap. I wrote a story about brothers coping with loss. I wrote another about a young man dealing with his best friend’s final illness. And because I needed to laugh, I wrote about a father whose sons were supposed to bring home the payroll for the ranch hands and screwed up royally, but somehow it all worked out.
It wasn’t just me writing: friends wrote for me. They didn’t even know Sarah, but somehow, they’d been drawn into her struggle. One of these friends emailed me to say that when she’d been driving her son to swim practice at dawn, she saw the sunrise and found herself thinking, “I wish Sarah could see this.” When she wrote a beautiful story about loss and learning to love again, she dedicated it to me: “For pjb – wishing you peaceful adventures on a good horse, with mountains backlit by sunrise.”
It was the writing, mine and theirs, that held me together that summer so that I could be strong for Sarah and Dan. She still felt pretty good, so they took one more family vacation. When they came back early in August, the new Jane Austen movie was in theaters. I suggested that we go see it, and she asked if it was okay if we waited until the 29th, because her parents were coming, and the kids would be back in school by then. So we planned to see “Becoming Jane” on the 29th, except we didn’t, because we buried her on the 28th.
I’d already planned to take the last two weeks of August off. On the Wednesday evening before my vacation began, Dan called to see if I could come over and sit with Sarah for a while. She’d had a bad night the night before, and he needed a break. I offered to stay the night so he could sleep, and it was a statement of how worn out he was that he barely put up a fight. I spending the night sitting up with Sarah in their king-sized bed, talking and singing hymns and whatever else she wanted to do while Dan slept in their son’s room. Things went pretty smoothly, and I only had to waken Dan once, when there was an issue with her peg tube. The biggest glitch was that she was suddenly ultra-sensitive to the chlorine taste in their city water; they had a Brita pitcher, but since they had an icemaker, they only had one ice-cube tray. I spent the night trying to make ice for her ice water using the filtered water, but you can’t rush freezing water. When Dan got up in the morning, I told him I was going out to buy them ice-cube trays and did he need me to do anything else? He handed me a cassette and asked me to take it to our church’s worship leader, adding, “Tell her it’s track nine.” That was the track with the song Sarah wanted her to sing at her funeral. So I went to the drugstore, and I went to the church, and I delivered the cassette with Sarah’s funeral song, and I went home and wrote.
It took practically no time for Sarah’s friends to organize the overnight schedule. I returned Friday night, and already I could see the difference: she was hallucinating, talking casually with people who weren’t there. I’d brought CDs so we could listen to music if she wanted, but her attention span was limited. She fretted about family members who were coming to visit the next day. Dan told her that she didn’t have to see anybody she didn’t want to, that it was his job to protect her and he would do it. I don’t think they even remembered I was in the room.
By my next overnight on Monday, she was in the hospital. I pulled the big armchair up next to her bed and rested my bare feet against her leg so that if I dozed off and she tried to get up, I would wake up. When the sun came up and the staff turned over and her parents arrived, I came home and I wrote.
My last overnight was Thursday. Another friend—we’ll call her Ellen—stayed the first half of the night, and I relieved her around 1:00. In the morning, Dan came with the two older children, who were only nine and eleven, and Sarah’s parents. I felt like the proverbial fifth wheel as the grandparents comforted the crying grandchildren and Dan told Sarah he loved her. When I left, I kissed her cheek and told her to be good. If I’d known it was the last time I’d ever see her, I’d have said something better. The character in my story did better when his friend was dying. That’s the nice thing about stories: you can correct what you got wrong in real life.
Saturday morning, I was busy overseeing breakfast at the soup kitchen when I heard the news. Later, I would hear how Sarah’s mother had gone down the hall to sleep for a little bit, and her father took her hand and told her it was okay if she was ready to go, and then she was gone.
The funeral was Tuesday. On Monday, I went shopping because somehow, in spite of everything, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would need summer funeral clothes. When I got to the funeral home that night, Sarah was wearing a silky red blouse. It seemed like a very Sarah choice, vibrant and full of life, but Dan admitted that he was the one who had chosen it. She’d planned on a black-and-white checked blouse, but it wouldn’t have coordinated with the brown wood of the casket. We agreed that she’d have been immensely pleased, both by his choice and his reasoning. The nail polish we’d put on a few weeks earlier still looked good.
The funeral was standing room only. I sang with the choir, an updated version of “Amazing Grace.” For the first verse, the worship leader used a recording of Sarah singing that song at the Good Friday service a few months earlier. Sarah would have loved the idea that she sang at her own funeral.
At the cemetery, Sarah’s father gave me his camera and asked me to take pictures. I assumed it was a European thing. After the graveside service, I saw Sarah’s mother, her aunts, and her cousin beside the grave, singing a hymn. All I could think was, “A parent shouldn’t have to bury her child.”
And then, it was over, except it wasn’t. I was home, and I didn’t know what I thought or felt. So I did the only thing I could think of: I took the laptop out onto the porch and started another story. Eventually, I would go to see the Jane Austen movie by myself, but on that day after we buried Sarah, the only thing I could do was write.
Every summer, at least once or twice, I find myself out here on the porch with the laptop, remembering Sarah. I never told her that I made my way through her final weeks by writing stories inspired by what was happening, but I know she would have approved. She had her struggles, just as we all do, but she believed in joy. She’s the only friend I’ve ever known who, when leaving at the end of a visit, would kiss my cheek and say, “I love you.” We sang together, we worked together, we wept together. I never showed her the stories I wrote that summer, but I think she’d have liked them. The one about the father and the payroll—she’d have laughed. And the one about the friends coping with one’s final illness—I like to think that if she’d read that one, she’d have set it down at the end and said, “That’s it. That’s what it’s been like.”
Then, she’d have kissed my cheek and said, “I love you.” And I’d have told her the same thing, because it was true then, and it still is.
Note: I composed this post before the horrific events in Charlottesville. For anyone whose storms include tidal waves of hatred and violence, it is my hope that these thoughts, though crafted against a very different backdrop, may nonetheless be of some value. May God sustain and strengthen you in this time of unspeakable pain.