When a friend was diagnosed with lung cancer, Patricia James didn't quite know what to do or say at first. But then she realized exactly what she needed to do: just show up.
I believe in showing up. My mother avoided visiting her best friend, my godmother, as she died of lung cancer because she didn’t know what to do or say. Even when Berdelle’s family called to say it wouldn’t be long, Mom couldn’t go. She never said good-bye.
A few years later Mom died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the days surrounding her death, our small Minnesota town transformed itself into an ark that kept our family afloat. For weeks, people did the simplest things: vacuumed, brought food, drank coffee with my father, and mowed the lawn. It all mattered.
In 2003, my dear friend, Sally, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Like Berdelle, she was a nonsmoker. Like my mom, I didn’t know what to do or say. I did a flurry of research to learn all there was to know about non-small-cell carcinoma and considered training to become a hospice volunteer. Then my life partner reminded me to do what I already knew how to do: show up.
A group of Sally’s friends—she called us The Divas—made sure that someone was with her every day of the week. I was Sally’s Monday. Our days at the cancer center were filled with talking, knitting, and hilarity that often involved medical staff and other patients.
Back home, Sally had a list of projects. We sorted through scary accumulations of photographs, craft projects, cosmetics, old purses, wallpaper, stationery, scarves, flowerpots, books, mismatched linens, and schmaltzy knickknacks stashed in closets and cabinets. We went to the gym and cheered when Sally sustained one mile an hour on the treadmill for ten minutes. One day we traded in her car for a smaller model that everyone else drove after the cancer was in her brain. We went to the mall to buy pajamas for her husband’s Christmas present. We browsed through her favorite dollar store, dropped off the latest pictures of her granddaughter Emerson to be developed, took drives in the country so she could take pictures on her new camera phone, promising we’d figure out how to download them someday. Sometimes we sat in her living room and folded laundry.
Each visit ended with a game of freestyle Scrabble for which we made new rules as needed. I knew the end was near when Sally couldn’t organize her letters to be right side up and didn’t remember we could make a rule allowing upside-down words.
Sally died on December 27, 2005. We hadn’t had any deep conversations about dying and death—those were reserved for her beloved husband and children. With her friends, she was as much herself as she could be, and that’s what she wanted. She needed her friends to show up and do the simplest things. And we did.
Patricia James was born and raised in Northfield, Minnesota, and now lives in Haydenville, Massachusetts. A longtime member of the Rittenhouse Writers Group in Philadelphia, Ms. James has just completed her first novel.
Independently produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.
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