The china tea cups were laid out beside a vase of roses. I arrived late to this reunion of high school friends and former teachers, and could hear the laughter from the door as I slipped in. Lunch was over, and our hostess was holding forth, confessing the teenaged pranks of which our former principal and a beloved English teacher were heretofore innocent. Tears of laughter rolled down their cheeks.
Our hostess sat back and took a breath, satisfied that her stories were having the desired effect. This was her party. It would not come again, this day. And in a way that ordinary life doesn’t often underscore, we all knew it.
Cancer is wasting her body. She is as far beyond the reach of Western medical treatment as an untethered kite in the wind.
In the pause that followed our laughter, someone asked how she is doing, really.
“Pain has become my constant companion,” she told us.
The medical marijuana, a lifeline to relief.
And then she was off again, regaling us with more funny stories.
With the diagnosis of Senator John McCain, cancer has entered our collective consciousness, if it wasn’t there already. Through the dark days of dear ones, I have received an unexpected, inestimable gift — recalibration. My friend has brought me back, from the chaos of tweets, and adventitious commentary, to bedrock. Each of us — national heroes, scoundrels, and ordinary citizens alike — is given one singular and precious life. And it is never long enough.
We easily lose touch in the blurry brinksmanship of public life. My devices alert me to yet another Facebook post about lobster rolls, photo-shopped satire, recipes for Turmeric tea. My friend, and now our ailing senator, bring me back to sanity. They remind me of the dignity that accompanies real suffering. With nothing as frontal as the current political patois, they expose what is unworthy, even morally grotesque, in these times. Their argument is simply to wake up each morning with the courage and grace to survive another day. We aren’t dying of cancer, my friend tells me. We are living with it.
Recently with my friend, another visitor confessed her sense of awkwardness, and uncertainty about how to behave in the face of deep suffering.
“I just don’t know what to do,” she said, “or what to say. It makes me avoid the whole thing.”
I thought how frequently we all do this, avoid suffering that we can’t single-handedly or simplistically change — racism, poverty, unemployment, cancer.
My friend looked up from the quilt she was stitching.
“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”
I was reminded of this the day I arrived late for lunch. I took the empty chair and looked around the table at old, beloved friends. I know these women to be passionately verbal, lovers of story and debate. I know them to be activists, do-it-now people. But here, that day, we were all silent. Occasionally one of us would ask a question, but mainly we listened.
And it struck me that something quite other than our usual verve for problem solving was being asked of us. We were being asked to be witnesses.
Our friend had planned this luncheon as a celebration, so that she could bequeath to us the most precious gift of all: herself. She gave us snapshots that the years had dimmed, tales of her spirited and off-the-wall adolescence, her marijuana smoking, romance-filled 20s, her years as a devoted mother and a successful banker, and her recent journey into prayer and acceptance. She is determined to create meaningful moments and memories as long as she can.
While it is never what we want, there are times when suffering offers what we need, the image of our better nature. My friend, with her generous heart, is teaching me invaluable lessons about how to live. We are here to look one another in the eye, to hold hands, to listen, and to laugh, and somehow, from out of this genuine, heart-felt engagement, to create the conditions that honor — with safety, hope, and opportunity — each life that will never be repeated.
Kathleen Hirsch lives in Jamaica Plain and blogs at www.kathleenhirsch.com.