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I lied to Kat Meyer. It was early last fall, after the kids had gone back to school and her family was briefly home in Cleveland during their months-long stay at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I told her, expert that I was in such things, that the year ahead would be exhausting. It would be sad, hard, frustrating, terrifying, surreal and completely and utterly exhausting. But then it would be over. They would pull together and they would do this hard thing and then they would be okay again.
And there was my lie.
I only said it because I believed it was true. That first critical surgery, where doctors cut open the skull of her five-year old daughter to remove a “bad rock” from her brain, had been successful. And so they would move on, going through the miserable motions that are childhood cancer treatment, and then they’d get on with their lives. Becca would get on with her life. Or so it seemed.
I spoke with more truth recently, after they discovered her cancer was back and treatment options nearly nonexistent, when I told her that she had entered a realm I knew very little about. Because, while I’ve heard the words “Your child has cancer,” on three separate occasions, I’ve never heard the words, “And there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Quite honestly, I don’t know a thing about death. Not in any real sense at least. And yet I’ve become this de facto expert, helping people prepare their children, helping people grieve and heal, planning and organizing and gathering, comforting the mom whose husband died suddenly, giving advice to the friend whose mother is getting close.
But I haven’t experienced any of it myself. I’ve never lost anyone. Besides my grandparents, I haven’t lost my parents or my in-laws (nor even had a significant scare). I’ve never lost a cousin or a sibling or even a friend. I’ve barely experienced death at all.
I have glimpsed it though. Like a shadow lurking behind me. I’ve felt it there, hovering over my shoulder, slipping just out of view when I turn to stare it straight in the eyes. It’s been present enough so I can smell it and almost taste it in my mouth. I’ve had those words, “Palliative chemo” uttered to me, but only in response to a What If question (“What if this treatment protocol we’re about to start doesn’t work?” . . . “Palliative chemo.”) I smelled death around me for the sixteen days back in May 2012 when we thought his cancer had come back for a third, and final, time. Just enough so that I’ve vacillated between two equally horrible extremes: One in which, in strange moments of calm, I could almost allow a slow but steady acceptance to seep through me. I could say to myself, “Okay. This is coming. This is really and truly happening. And we will make it the best, most peaceful and most comforting death ever. And then we will pick ourselves up and we will move on. We will be okay.” And as soon as I’ve dared to allow such traitorous thoughts into my mind, they are knocked out with pure and absolute refusal. This thing will not happen. I refuse to allow it to happen. “No, you will not take my child. I WILL NOT let this happen. I will fight, scream, beg, plead, claw my way to him and I will hold on with a grip so tight that nothing, no one, will be able to pry him from my arms.”
I imagine Kat and Eric go through that particular roller coaster ride several times each day now, as they watch their seemingly healthy daughter run around the playground, perform in the kindergarten concert in full princess attire, squabble with her friends over toys. And yet they know, they know what is coming. What might strike on any given day. Death is lurking in the shadows, hovering over their shoulders. And if they fight it, refusing to allow it to come into full view, then I wish them all the strength and luck in the world. And if, given their sad reality, they accept their fate with broken hearts, then I wish them all the strength and luck in the world.
This might be part one in a series titled Death in the Age of Facebook, about which I have a fair amount to say. But let’s start with this:
Positive thinking does not cure cancer. A good attitude will not help you survive.
It’s a lovely idea, of course, one that makes us feel like we have a tiny bit of control over our destinies. Be strong, keep your chin up, and this too shall pass. Only that’s not true. And not only is it not true, but it’s harmful and hurtful to those who don’t survive, those whose cancers simply can’t be beat with a smile and a sunny outlook.
Look at the language we use around cancer: This person “succumbed” to the disease, while that other one “overcame” it. Patients are warriors fighting a battle that requires strength and courage, a willingness to charge forward and face any challenge, no matter how terrifying and no matter how futile.
There is a lot about Facebook and social media that is wonderful when you’re faced with a crisis. You’re able to connect with others who’ve experienced what you’re going through, you’re able to share information in an honest and direct way with large numbers of people, and you’re able to draw strength and love from the strength and love of those around you. The online response, even if it’s just the click of a Like button, can be overwhelming and heart warming. It’s a sign of the invisible thread that ties us all together, caring about one another, wishing each other well.
But it also gives us a glimpse into how differently people handle the tragedies that befall us, tragedies like death sentences for five-year olds. Now, I know these are treacherous waters to wade through, that no one truly has the right words, that no one can take away the pain and suffering of the family, no matter how badly they may want to. And I know that any of us might say the wrong thing at the wrong time, in a misguided attempt to be helpful.
But one thing that I wish no family would have to bear is the idea that they should “keep their heads held high” and not “give up.” As if they themselves, their grief and their despair, are somehow responsible for their lack of options. Sometimes, as horrid as it is, there simply are no options. Or no good options at least. Now I’m not saying give up; I believe in holding on to hope until the very last second. But be sad. Let your head hang down and cry when you need to because this is devastating. There is no “chin up” attitude that can bolster a family faced with this reality, no “rah rah” mentality that can keep death at bay.
Although I sure as hell wish there was.