I've been thinking a lot lately about cancer.
Before my dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a few years ago, cancer and I had only passed once in a dark hallway. A friend I used to work with had a recurrence of breast cancer when I was working with her; we later lost touch, but I hear through friends she's doing well after a scary year or so. Other than that friend, I can't recall another time cancer has come anywhere close to me. There's no history of it on either side of my family, which is one of the reasons why my dad's diagnosis was such a shock.
In some ways, I guess I was lucky that cancer hadn't been more a part of my life before my dad's diagnosis, especially as the past few years it seems that the disease is making up for lost time.
After my dad got cancer, one of our cats then was diagnosed with lymphoma. We put him through a year of chemotherapy, and he's doing splendidly well now. My father's cancer wasn't as amiable, however, and he died in December after it had spread to his lungs, lymph nodes, and spine.
Between my dad's death and the memorial gathering we held for him in early February, the elder sister of one of my college girlfriends was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. She began chemotherapy and has spent the majority of the last eight months in the hospital. She got a bone marrow transplant a month or so ago, and things were looking up. Then a couple of weeks ago her body started showing signs of rejecting the new marrow. Her doctors have been grappling with the graft/host issues ever since, and yesterday I heard that the doctors can do no more.
Ever since my dad died at the age of 72, whenever I hear about someone whose parent is still alive at the age of 80, 85, 90, or more, I have the immediate and selfish thought of, "That's not fair." And it's not, I suppose. Yes, at 72 he had lived a good, long life, and had gotten to watch his children grow up. But I still maintain, in the selfish way a daughter who has lost her father would maintain, that he should have had another 10 years.
What my friend is now going through, on the other hand, is unfair to the point of being criminal. Her sister is only a couple years older than we are, in her late 30s. She is married to a wonderful man who adores her to pieces, and they have a precocious little boy who's five or six years old. She will not live to see her son grow up. She will not grow old with her husband. Her son will not have his mother around for the rest of his life. And there is no way on this earth that is anything but tragic, unfair, and wrong.
There are blessings in the midst of all of this, in that my friend's family is very close - her parents and their respective partners are all good friends. The family unit is incredibly tight, and they've been leaning on one another for months now as they work their way through this. But no parent should have to face burying their child. Ever.
Last night as I sat on the sofa watching TV and thinking about my friend and her family, I looked at my cat sleeping next to me. I watched the side of his body move up and down slowly with each breath he took, and I couldn't help but wonder why he had lived and my father had died. Why was my cat spared and my friend's sister is in her final hours? I love my cat dearly, and I'm glad we chose to put him through the year of chemo and I'm glad he responded well to the treatment. But what kind of disease spares a house pet and takes two people instead?
And I think that's just it; cancer is, at heart, completely and utterly unfair. It makes its living by being unfair. It's ruthless, heartless, unforgiving, rude, cunning, and sadistic, but all of that pales in comparison to how heart-breakingly unfair it is.
All the positive thoughts I'd been thinking for my friend's sister to get better are now being transferred to the whole family, in the hopes that they can see their way through this.
A friend sent me this poem shortly after my dad died, and I still find great comfort in it. I've been thinking about it again lately, and will eventually send it to my friend and her family. When the time is right.
"Dirge Without Music" - Edna St. Vincent Millay
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.