Watching from afar as my friend lost her battle with cancer

I watched from afar as my friend Susan died from a fast-spreading cancer that took hold in September, and let go in June, thirteen years ago now. We had been friends since college, and my family had recently moved to her town, imagining years of shared times ahead. She had this pain that wouldn’t go away. The doctor thought it should resolve in a couple of weeks. It didn’t; it only got worse.

I talked to her on the phone while she was being diagnosed. They are scaring me to death, she said. I can’t wait for the test results to come back. No, it was not a good idea to visit, not yet, she just wanted to hear from the doctor. Besides she was in so much pain, she said.

The news was bad – bad enough to transfer her care to a specialty hospital. Bad enough to try surgery. Too bad for the surgery to help. And she was still in so much pain.

I got to see her soon after, for a few minutes, in her family room turned sick bay. She had just chosen this wallpaper and had it put up. She loved how the room looked, so much better than before. But she was no longer thinking about home décor.

She hated the advice she was getting from well-meaning folks that if she could learn to be less stressed and become more mindful, it would help her. This isn’t my fault, she said, and I don’t need to hear that. They don’t know. She was worried about one thing. I am so stubborn, she said, I am afraid that I won’t be able to let myself die. So this is how bad it is, I thought. Oh Susan, I said.

How could this be? She was only 40 years old, recently promoted at work, and the best mother you’ve ever seen to her preteen daughters, attentive wife to her overly busy businessman husband. No preservatives, no pop came into her house, no Hamburger Helper, water only from the water cooler in the kitchen. She was a health nut. She carried Lysol with her on vacations to purify the kids’ environment.

Not a month before, twelve of us old friends had sat outside in the moonlight on a log cabin’s porch singing college songs, a perfect evening. We told jokes and laughed and then got quiet, under the stars, soaking in our rare togetherness.

I wanted to be helpful, but when I called, it was not a good day for a visit. Her relatives came to help, and screened calls. I always complied, but as the months went on, wondered if I was doing the right thing. Was this really her wish, or was it her loving family’s determination to shield her from fatigue, germs, sadness, whatever outsiders would bring? I didn’t know what to do, so I kept calling, but less often. I would hear a general report of how she was doing, always the report of her worsening pain. These damn doctors, I thought, can’t they at least do that for her?

Finally, I got a yes. Months had gone by, more than half a year, and I knew that things were worsening. Yes, okay, it would be okay to visit, said her family. I was about to go on a trip, so could I come today? Yes, I could.

I was surprised to see her husband home. He showed me into her room, filled with her hospital bed, and wheelchair, and table of medications nearby. She was so thin, but still so herself.

Oh, she said, it is amazing that all my friends are coming to see me. Did she know that we’d been trying? Should I have pushed harder? Wouldn’t it have been a good thing to have a few minutes here and there with an old friend? But it wasn’t for me to say. Those who loved her even more than I did had done what they thought best. I was here now only because they had opened the door at last.

I was just lucky to be there for this last visit. We talked and laughed. There was plenty to say. Her honesty and realism allowed us talk about it all. Her husband came in three times to say that the visit was running too long. She threw him out three times, rather sternly the last time. Classic Susan.

I said goodbye, that I would miss her so, that I was sorry I was going out of town because I wanted to come again. I’m so glad you came, she said, it was so good to talk. I love you, I said.

Me too, she said.

She died a week later, during my trip. We found out in Paris from her husband after a wonderful day of traipsing around with our kids in the spring air. Her husband forbade us to return for the funeral. Don't you dare, he said. We complied.

When I think of her now, which is often, I think of her challenge that I wasn’t any help with until the end. I understand fully that I didn't know what she was going through, and don't today. It wasn't the worst thing that I respected her family's wishes, which may well have been her own. But today, I know what I would do – text, write, drop off flowers, bring casseroles. Just so there would be some tangible evidence that I cared, that I was here. I learned from her, at that last visit, that it might have made a difference.

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  • It's so hard, isn't it? Being on the outside of an experience that truly encircles everyone. I've been listening to a singer, Jason Isbell, lately who has a song about cancer called The Elephant in the Room. One of the lines is, "surrounded by her family I could see she was dying alone." I'm so glad you were able to see her before she died.

  • In reply to Kerri K. Morris:

    Thank you, and for the lines you shared. I will pursue to hear it all.

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