My friend died last week. I echo innumerable voices – victims, survivors, loved ones standing by or standing without – in saying, “Cancer sucks.”
It sucked when my friend was diagnosed 18 months ago and when she endured an aggressive treatment plan only to learn cancer hadn’t left, it just found a new place to reside. During her next round of treatments, I took her to Friday chemo and watched a day in her fight. Benadryl was first, a precautionary measure to keep her body from reacting poorly to the chemicals about to drip into her veins and sicken her for most the weekend. She’d sleep the weakness away, enjoy a couple good days, then go back for more. And after months of this, her body scan didn’t read clean.
There were hospital visits and texts. I rallied the prayers of family and friends while she rallied her war cry. She watched her son’s college graduation online and during the graduation party everyone ate and laughed while she lay in another room coughing and breathing from a tank, but she never complained. She allowed me in and we talked for a while about our kids, about their futures, about anxiety created by motherhood or breathing machines or simply by life itself.
When her husband texted ‘It doesn’t look good’, I didn’t finish drying my hair, I just left. ‘It doesn’t look good’ are words of urgency, not words to ready a person. And indeed, no one was ready. Not her children or husband, nor her mother and father, or her oncologist who’d been so positive last month. The fighter herself said it all morning: ‘I’m not ready.’ She’d intended to write letters to her kids. She’d expected to see her youngest through high school and she’d hoped to attend the weddings of her older children – grown, but not grown enough to be motherless.
I just listened and nodded my head because my mouth wasn’t working so well. The living don’t advise the dying, and anyway, it’s best not to speak about things you don’t understand. And I didn’t understand.
I’d prayed healing for my friend throughout her battle; many of my loved ones prayed too. Healing prayers and miracle pleas are natural prayers, natural as verbalizing hopes and admitting we don’t understand. But that morning, my prayers were for a soul, not a body. They were prayers my friend would be ready.
The previous Sunday, I’d listened to the words, ‘It is well with my soul’ and I’d tried to sing them, but I choked up instead. I’d never really liked the song that much, but I’d heard it and sung it since I was a child, and suddenly I couldn’t escape the message of it: Trusting God means ‘even though’ and ‘in spite of’, ‘but’ and ‘without’ must become ‘it is well with my soul.’ What if I lost plans, possibilities, people – would the song of my soul be peace? Could I trust Him enough to say ‘I don’t understand this world, but my spirit is good. God is good. It is well.’?
A week later I was watching my friend face those questions for real – no hypotheticals. The battle for remission was now the battle of reconciling finality. In our years together we’d talked about hope and living well, but we didn’t talk about God. We didn’t talk about God that morning either – we talked to God, together. She said her plans were different from God’s, but she’d trust Him anyway, and she gave Him the hopes she had for her children, knowing she wouldn’t be part of their futures. It was a big deal moment for the both of us. It still shakes me.
And then she got ready. She poured copious ‘I love yous’ on her family, righted wrongs, and let grace fall where only grace fits. She blessed her children and they sang her praises. She said things that matter, things we know we should live by but can’t because we’re busy taking life for granted. Things like, ‘Be patient with each other. Don’t work yourself to death. Spend more time with your family.’ Not a word was wasted, not a minute spilled. And the next day, she was gone.
Grief is a tragically brand new experience each and every time, and although loss is a universal language, there aren’t words good enough to explain it. When I pass my friend’s house or see her kids with my kids and think to send her a picture, it hurts. I expect it will for a long time.
Uncertain tomorrows are certain, so I’ll do my best with today. I’ll trust God more instead of trying to understand first. I’ll practice more patience, open my mouth for truth and grace, and when I’m brave enough, I’ll ask those close to me if I’m getting any better at it. I’ll spend more simple moments with loved ones and I’ll write more notes to my children. I’ll allow ‘it is well’ to shape my prayers. And I’ll look forward to seeing my friend again one day.