How was your summer?
I don’t know how to answer that.
I’ve always hated that line of questioning. How was your weekend? Your break? Your whatever? I’m not completely convinced that anyone really cares how my time was spent. It’s a knee jerk social convention that I am guilty of employing myself.
The asker just wants the other person to respond with “Good” or “Fine”, or possibly with a short but interesting anecdote. Often the question is a jumping off point for the asker to launch into a story of his or her own. “Oh, well let me tell you what happened to me. You’ll appreciate this!” Chances are good that I won’t, but by all means proceed.
Much as we may or may not appreciate witty vacation stories, no one REALLY wants to know how it was if it was bad. Unfortunately for others, it is completely within the scope of my personality to stop people in their tracks with exactly how bad it was.
My beautiful friend died this summer. That’s how it was.
Yes, I did some fun things and had adventures. I could pull out an amusing anecdote if needed. Heck, I was at the beach with my family for the first time in five years when she passed. I wasn’t there for her alcohol soaked bedside vigil at the hospital with her family, and all our friends and a red wagon full of booze. I could only post photos and memories to the Facebook group from afar, going back as far as possible in my digital archives. So how was my summer?
I hovered around the idea of emailing our school staff and begging them to pinky swear not to ask each other the dreaded question. After all, our friend and colleague’s fight against cancer had been the entire school’s fight for nine months. But my reputation as the person who says the inappropriate thing or the snarky thing stayed my hand. Somehow it would have come across wrong. As school started, inevitably the question was asked even by people who had been directly active in her care.
So I’ve tried to be a good kid and answer with stories of caterpillars, zip lining, yardsales and the like. But a part of my brain screams about her as I tell those stories.
Particularly today. Her sister reminded us that it was a year ago today that everything changed. What she had spent most of a year thinking was sciatic nerve pain hobbling her movement, was an insidious creature absorbing her hip bones and building tumors up and down her fragile spine. It was so wretched and evil that doctors wouldn’t be able to identify its source for another six months.
Running its course, the cancer immobilized her, then teased her and us by letting her build back the strength to walk unassisted again. It took her hair. It took her appetite and stole her taste for favorite foods. She could no longer stand chocolate. That’s a horror story. It played with creating new lesions and growths in different parts of her body just to keep the doctors guessing. For a while it gave her a lazy eye and double vision. And in the end, it sucked up her ability to get enough oxygen on her own, and her dream of seeing her two-year old at Disney. But all through the ridiculous ups and downs, and loss of dignity, she smiled her gigantic Disney princess smile. A smile that had a little bit of the villainess behind it. I couldn’t have loved her as much without a little wickedness being there,and a shrieked “RIGHT!” and cackling laugh in response to my own sarcastic commentary.
She was a life-long cheerleader, positive but not a Pollyanna. Where I would have been the worst and grumpiest patient, she was gracious to all. She gladly absorbed all the tributes, signs, tshirts, videos, and projects created in the name of keeping her strong; or more likely keeping us strong as we powerlessly watched everything happen.
There had to be times when she just wanted a private life instead of constant well meant bombardment. Times when she was overwhelmed by the pain and the fear of what was happening. She must have leaned on her mother, sister, and husband’s shoulders in those moments. I only had a few moments like that with her. As always, she worried about other people, not wanting to make them uncomfortable by talking about how she really felt or things like planning her will. She was more often in the role of comforter.
The first time I visited her after the diagnosis and initial surgery, I cried because all the pain killers made her voice sound strange. Of course, she just kept saying,”I’m sorry. It’s okay.” As if this was her fault. It’s a cliche, but I’ll never feel like I did enough or visited enough or did all that I could for her. But I desperately cling to the idea that she was mine.
The last time I visited her with a friend, she was groggy and in and out of a very disturbed sleep during the visit, not really aware of us until we were leaving. When I told her I loved her as I kissed her goodbye for the day, she managed to make eye contact and mumble a “love ya” back.
So that’s how my summer was.