Tuesday, September 23, 2014

An open letter to my friend Kate

Dear Kate,

Most times I don't believe the things that I tell you over the phone. Asking you to stay strong and telling you that you're doing your best isn't helpful to a person under the dark weight of the situation you've found yourself in. These are weak little statements that don't encourage a positive mentality but instead distract you from the very real problems you're facing daily. I cannot imagine the hardships you face with a mother in chemo and a grandmother passing away before your eyes. I'm going to write my thoughts down so that I can read them again before shuffling them back at you when you need someone to talk to.

Both of my parents are alive. Further, neither of them has had or currently has a cancer of any type. This isn't to say that they haven't had their respective shares of health issues - injuries and illnesses that introduced me, as their child, to the idea that they will die someday. I've seen my father at his darkest, after losing his mother, his job and his mobility while rehabilitating from a knee surgery. I've seen my mother's freshly bruised face after a car accident and I've seen her weep as memories of her parents, triggered by Christmas carols, flood back into view.

I have seen both of my parents lose their own parents. Past the age of eighteen I had no grandparents of my own, just headstones and stories that make them seem otherworldly. I feel now that I only really knew my mother's mother, Donna Woodward, a loving, intelligent and deeply curious woman who shared my interest in science fiction. I watched as Donna faded day by day in a hospital bed, fearfully dependent on a breathing tube attached to her trachea. I was a senior in high school with a stupid band and a girlfriend who would leave me for someone else in only a few months. I didn't understand why it happened then, why she couldn't or wouldn't hang on for me or my younger brother Andy. I've heard people wish for a moment of joy or pleasure to be frozen in time, but back then I wanted to freeze what time I had left with my grandmother.

This is the context that I have to pull from for thinking about losing people and keeping them from being lost.

On losing people:

A schism exists between sets of her grandchildren on my mother's side – those who walked in their high school graduation with Donna in attendance and those who did not. Donna didn't make it to see me graduate from Carmel High School in 2008, instead passing away the winter before and leaving a mark on the holiday season that only a family can feel. She wasn't there when my brother graduated from Carmel High School in 2012 either. Each of us sat impatiently on our hands for hours and when our alphabetical turn came we looked quickly towards the burst of cheering in the audience to find many familiar faces, none of them Donna.

We graduated anyway - I in 2008 and Andy in 2012. We collected our handshakes and our degrees followed in the mail a few weeks later. Since then I've been published in a book, received a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Ball State University, toured around the United States playing music and moved across the country with no job, house or realistic plan. I've lost my virginity, tried drugs and fell in love more than a few times. I've put my heart into things that fell apart, been scared for my life and eaten things that no one should eat and Donna missed it all.

This isn't to say that you'll be fine without June, your grandmother. Donna's followed me and my family in the unconditional love of the two cats she left behind, Frankie and Johnnie. Of those cats only Frankie remains in my parents' home as a connection to her world. I think of my grandmother when I watch any Star Trek series because odds are that I watched any given episode with her. She's in my thoughts when I eat spaghetti because even though I haven't eaten meat in ten years I can taste her recipe. Thinking about her now I see the cottonwood tree in her backyard and remember the space we had as grandchildren to run and laugh and play when we were at her home.

This is what memories become with time. I remember the good things and the comfortable things, but try to forget the bad bits. I try not to think about the look in her eyes when she became scared to drive her own car because it steals from the image I want to remember her in. I want to remember her falling asleep with me and Andy at the movies or singing in her church choir, not for the time she spent in the hospital.

It's okay to remember her that way. This is important, that I can control my own ideas about what I've lost and what I still have. This is how I learned to move on while holding onto the parts of someone still special to me.

On keeping people:

I don't have much experience for keeping others alive and well. I don't take care of myself and so it seems strange to push a state of disrepair onto someone else. It takes a lot of external motivation for me to see a doctor and even more support for me to act on their professional advice. I am the boy who cut his poison-ivy covered arm with sandpaper and poured hydrogen peroxide over the wound to kill the rash. I am the boy who waited for his roommates to notice that his foot had turned black and drive him to a hospital to find that he'd torn the tendons in his ankle two weeks after trying to jump over a wall.

Taking care of your mother Sandy is foreign to me because the most that I do for my mother is place a regular phone call and sign greeting cards for greeting card-justified events. I care for others in the ways that I care for myself, like cooking food or cleaning the bathroom. The hard part for me is to put the caring into real, selfless actions, and now that I've moved from Indianapolis to Oakland it feels as though there is no tangible way for me to help you besides sitting patiently on the other end of a phone call. I've seen cancer in friends and family from a circle much farther out than the circle you're in now and I have seen its mass flatten those surrounded by it.

I know that every single day can seem impossible. I know that just the idea of a doctors appointment can be stressful. This will not be easy. You've fallen into a position that you did not ask for and that you cannot reject. I know that you feel that you can't escape and that your time isn't your own. Plans are put on hold while your social life crumbles. I know you feel selfish and tired. The bad news is that it doesn't get easier. The good news is that even though these smaller pieces of the mess seem impossible you need to remember that cancer is not. Cancer is beatable. Sandy can beat cancer. You have to push yourself and your mother and your father to work to get through this, but you have to remember that it is not impossible.

For all of this I am deeply and undeniably sorry. The only thing that I or anyone who isn't medically or financially qualified can do for you or your mother is to sit and listen and try to make you laugh and forget about the horrible mess that you're going through, even for just one minute. I'm more than two-thousand miles away and if you call and ask me I will tell you that you're doing your best and make a joke. Or I'll stay quiet on the other end and you can say to me whatever you need to.

Always your friend,


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