A friend is very sick. A very close friend. An “inner circle” friend. An essential friend. Cancer. Rare. Aggressive. Head and neck. What to do? What to do? My dear, brilliant friend is in another state, and I am over here in Chicagoland. What to do?
Make phone calls.
Help my friend make lists. Share what I know about cancer, cancer treatment, about being in the Cancer Space, etc. My friend’s case of Cancer is different than mine though – in a number of key ways: type, location, aggressiveness. My cancer tends to be a lazy like its owner. My friend’s cancer is not lazy. And my friend’s situation is super complicated, super tough, so if you’re reading this maybe send some vibes or hard prayer into the universe for my friend.
In Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, and also in the film, is a thought by one of the main characters. In the written version of the story the quote is longer, and I will quote the longer one here. I think about this quote a lot these days. I mean, a lot. And the way the late, great Heath Ledger delivered the line, slightly altered for film. From the short-story Brokeback Mountain: “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”
The past few months have felt rife with experiences and situations I cannot fix, but have to stand: like my ex, like my divorce, like my own cancer, like the move “back home,” like my friend’s serious and seriously scary case of cancer . . .
Sadness congeals around me, like storm clouds. Nudges, gentle as a small horse, at the edges of my inner-peace reserves. My mind a coin that could, at any moment, be flipped the other way. Sometimes, the sadness of the world feels this way: pressure around the peace I try so desperately to live in my heart and mind.
And again, the Stanley Kunitz lines, “In a murderous time/the heart breaks and breaks/and lives by breaking.”
Reader, I have never known a more murderous time in my life.
My niece came to visit on Thursday. Overnighter. We had a great time though at one point we were treated very rudely by the front office staff while using my apartment complex’s “bowling alley” (quotes intended). And I’ve had it. I had had it that day. I could not stand it. I wrote one of my Legendary “Stern Emails.” Even my friend, who is sick, said to me yesterday, "I want you to write one of your emails, Allison. You know those emails you write that tear people to shreds." And then she laughed her wild, brassy laugh that I love. And my niece and I got two phone call apologies after my email. Including offers for free pool passes. And when the manager wrote to me later, I held off on my response, and then I wrote to thank his staff for their TWO-PHONE-CALL apologies (truly extraordinary -- "this," I told Alice who is also a Writer) "Is how writing can be used pragmatically. Do you know what that word means?"
I told the manager, among other things, this "Thank you for the apologies. This will do." Later adding, "You know, we might be poor folks living in these apartments, but poor people deserve to be treated with dignity, too." Because that', I told my niece, is how you put your politics into practice.
"Fold it in," I said to her. And she laughed as this was a reference to a Schitt's Creek scene which we both think is a very funny program. Even if you've never seen the show, this is a scene worth watching. Moira has always reminded me forcibly of my friend who is currently ill. My friend also deeply loves this show:
I live in Poor People Apartments. I am a Poor Person. A financially Broke American with a dollar in her bank account today. Living on the charity of her parents, waiting for a job that may never happen, and waiting to know when it’s time to pull the trigger on Disability. My American Dream died the minute my ex rendered me homeless in Tucson after 8 years of marriage, cut me off financially, and froze me out. I still dream about those three weeks, when I hadn’t a home anymore. I was lucky. I had people, like you reader, and you, though maybe not you, who were able to float me some $$ to afford places to stay, food, and plane tickets.
Sometimes, with my shrink, I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t know how to shape all of this sorrow and grief, so I simply endure it, and try to remember to come up for air with books, Birds!, video games, movies, music (so much music) and writing.
My friend, who is very ill, is astonished by how bad the American Healthcare System is, even oncology. They grew up in Germany, and lived there again for a time as an adult, and by comparison, yeah, America is a Shithole Country. “I’m sorry,” I told them last night. “I know it’s so frustrating, and so scary.”
“No but you don’t understand –” they said. They are afraid. They are in pain. They are confused. This is how we always feel when doctors tell us we have cancers growing in our bodies. It is scary, it is painful, it is so confusing. Usually, the American Healthcare Systems don’t (or can’t) make it any easier. I am glad to be at the Rush Cancer Center. They have proved themselves (to me at least) an exception to the rule.
My friend, a Writer, has all but lost their vision to the cancer that has yet to be removed from their face. When I call, I call on FaceTime because they want their close friends to see the look of their face, and to tell her how it looks today, and today, and today. Each day, worse.
“But better today,” I told my friend yesterday as their ex and I sat on my couch in Chicagoland and FaceTimed her in the American South.
“No it’s not, Allison,” they said, removing their glasses, to show the expansion of the cancer across her face. “I look like shit.”
Their ex and I told them they did not look like shit. “I mean, you have certainly looked better,” I joked with my friend the other day. And they laughed. I can still make my friend laugh their wonderful, loud, wild laugh – a laugh I have loved since I first heard it in the early aughts.
I love my friend, and this is what I remember when I feel so sad for my friend, when I feel so scared for my friend. I love my friend, so I try to be the calm for my friend, and I do what I can do: help make lists, help make calls, and though I have plenty of my own shit, helping my friend through this time in their life makes me feel useful, makes me feel better, makes me feel like I can help even if I’m broke and unemployed.
Maybe someday I will not be broke and unemployed. Until then, I can’t fix it, so I have to stand it. And I can’t fix my friend’s cancer, so I have to stand it. And I can’t fix my own cancer, so I have to stand it. And I can’t fix that my ex was incapable of real human love, abused me for years, I have to stand these facts of my past. I have to stand it.
Good news: I’m back on the right Medicaid. I can resume my care at Rush, and I have. Saw the gyne surgeon this week. Ovaries are coming out in July. I told my friend, who was visiting to talk to our friend, that they were going to “suck out my ovaries” and she laughed because she’s always laughed at my weird hyperboles.
“I used to tell my-ex ‘they’ were gonna ‘rip out my thyroid’,” I told my friend who had come over to talk on FaceTime with our friend who is ill. “And she hated when I’d say things like that.” She did. My ex was never compassionate about my medical ordeals, and had no sense of humor about them or about anything at all. Good riddance. Her loss, etc.
The last, best parts of my youth were spent in Chicago with my friend who is sick. And when a longtime friend is seriously ill, there’s a tendency to shoot back to the beginning. At least for me. When my ex left me, when I was homeless, I would think about the beginning, when things were so, so good. Or so they seemed. And my friend (who had come to visit my Poor American Apartment so we could contact our friend who is ill on The Computer), and I spoke immediately of the past. Of happier times. Of the brilliance and hilarity of the past. Of Clark Street in Andersonville. Of the museums, of the art scene, of the literary scene . . . And then the present moment, with all of its new Facts and Discoveries, shocks us out of the past. “‘Til human voices wake us . . . ” - that shit.
When my niece was visiting on Thursday, we ended the night with a comedy, Anchorman. She’d never seen it and wanted to. She’s going to be a sophomore in high school next years, so I thought it was about damn time she sees herself a PG-13 movie with Auntie Allison, which is who I am to my nieces. Even the nieces who aren’t by “definition” nieces. Auntie Allison. I like this role because it’s basically my teacher-self – only I am not accountable for State Standards or bullshit test scores. I love my nieces. I loved my students. Children and Young Humans are easy to love if you can remember the child and young human that still rests inside of you, and you, and you, and maybe not you (too bitter), but definitely you.
In Anchorman, a ridiculous, puerile, absurd, and classic comedy, there’s a scene where Will Ferrel’s character is having a major freaky meltdown in a telephone booth. Alice laughed at this scene. “Have you ever felt this way, though?” I asked her. “I’ve felt this way a lot lately.” And then we both laughed, though I was only approximately 40% joking . . .
Feel sad, reader. A little discouraged, too. A lot lost, if I’m being honest. And what has amazed me, particularly in light of the news about my close friend, is how strong I am, too. I think back on conversations I’ve had in the past few days with my friend, who has an aggressive cancer that presents on her face right now, how I have remained so calm, cool, and collected that both my friend and their mother have come to seek my counsel around this situation in which they excruciatingly find themselves. I know some shit. Or some people seem to think that I do.
The other day I told my friend Lynn that I sometimes feel like that scene in original (and only) recipe, Karate Kid, where Daniel-san finally figures out that all the wax-on-wax-off shit has been training for the Real Deals. And he is amazed. Maybe a little-too-pleased with himself, but that’s the point of that scene, too. The way the Ego always wants to take over, even when the Ego is dead fucking wrong. Teens are all-Ego. This is normal. What else have they seen but their own Egos and the Egos of the Adults around them?
So Daniel-San is a bit impressed with himself when he figures out Miyagi’s teachings. And Miyagi tempers his Ego, as all good teachers-of-the-young know how to do – tenderly, patiently. This is the only Correct Way to grow children. I mean, in my humble estimation. (Cool your jets, Gruber-san.)
And I think that’s all for today, reader. They tell me it is Saturday. I believe this. As I told my friend, who is sick and scared, last night, “I know it’s impossible, but you’re gonna just have to trust right now because you’re actual life depends on it.” I know my friend’s history. I know her unseeable wounds. “I know how you have been failed,” I told my friend last night. “And I know America has been bullshit to the both of us, but if you want to live, you have to Trust right now.”
I said this to my ma the other night when she was inquiring about a promising job lead I have had for a little while. She worries, as mother’s do. I met her worry with this, “I don’t know, ma. I just have to Trust right now. I won’t live Afraid anymore. I just have to Trust their word is Good.”
Try going in Trust today, hooligans. See what happens. If it don’t work out, sue me, but all you’re gonna get is some raggety ass books, and janky art that only I, specifically and exclusively, enjoy.
Be good, hooligans.