Got that first one off my chest. All downhill sledding from here, right?
Except it isn’t. Not this week.
Eighteen months ago I learned of my Aunt’s ovarian cancer diagnosis. Soon afterward I phoned her, and left a message. I was not expecting a call back anytime soon. As adults we have talked on the phone infrequently, and have seen one another even less often than that. I figured she had more important priorities than me: her children, their families, her close friends. The implications of the news. But she did call and I missed it, so she left a message. And I dragged my feet. Or avoided. Or something else.
This week she is in her hospital room in Boston, MA recovering from yet another major surgery. It is the latest of many procedures she has had to undergo since her diagnosis. As relentlessly and bravely as she has battled, the disease has resurfaced and she needed to undergo immediate surgery.
I have not earned firsthand any of the information I know. I have not spoken with her at all, from the initial news of her diagnosis to now. Texts, social media alerts, second and third-hand telling of information have kept me in the loop. I have even spoken with my cousins a handful of times, but not to her.
Believe me, this isn’t the kind of thing I had in mind to write about following my first ever blog entry. I endeavored to find something else. I started other ideas and stopped a few times. Attempted to head in a number of different directions, followed other thoughts that might see my interest through to a finished product. No dice.
A mentor of mine once told me that we don’t often choose what we write about. It chooses us. In many cases something nags and scrapes at us from inside until we acknowledge it and infuse it with life. I know this isn’t what I would have chosen to write about; it simply wrestled me into submission.
So now here we are.
My Aunt Judy, one of the most positive, goofy, vibrant, funny, alive people I have ever known is very sick. She is still fighting, yes. Valiantly, even heroically. But from what I have been told, this is not a time for long term optimism. I have been told now is the time to drive up to New England for a visit. Her daughter, my cousin, has even arranged to be married this Friday, months earlier than planned. It was her suggestion that we come to celebrate her marriage, and to also say “goodbye.”
I am no stranger to this aspect of life. Mortality is not a new experience for me. My grandparents, family members, friends, my wife’s family. No shortage of opportunities to stare down into the chasm of our existence, to acknowledge the fleeting nature of our lives. This time just feels different. Maybe it is her age; she is a very young 60 years old. Maybe it is the fact that she is someone who has always been so kind and loving, and doesn’t deserve to have to fight so hard just to live. She has earned better than that.
All those months ago, when she returned my call and left her voicemail, the realist in me knew her situation wasn’t a good one. Optimism took hold, and I wanted to believe that who she was would be enough for her to vanquish this affliction; for as long as she has survived, that is probably one of many reasons.
Perhaps I didn’t return her call because I was being optimistic. To reject the danger, the gravity of the situation. To instead believe that cancer isn’t something worthy of harming someone like her. If I am being honest with myself, I know looking at the silver lining isn’t the real reason I didn’t call.
The real reason is primal–call it fight or flight–an “acute stress response.” The news of her illness aroused fear in me. Fear of the sometimes unpredictable and horrible things that happen to the best people. Fear of something within myself: maybe I don’t possess the courage to face some of the things I know I need, and will need, to face. Fear of the humility and vulnerability required in order to evolve into a better human being. This is as close to the truth about myself as I can tell it, at least right now.
This same fear is trying to compel me not to go this weekend. To instead manufacture some reason that will absolve me of responsibility. A client needs me to meet with her child, or my son’s soccer practice. Anything at all resembling an obligation. Perhaps it is the guilt–maybe shame–that I feel for allowing days to become weeks, and for those to become an ever-widening gulf of months.
All of this, and I don’t want to say goodbye when I haven’t even said hello yet.
Still, come Thursday night I will gather some clothing for our suitcase. My wife will pack it meticulously, as she always does. I probably won’t sleep well, if at all. My memories will be too distracting. All the fun we had as children up at Sebago Lake with my Aunt and Uncle, and cousins. Our arm wrestling contests (Aunt Judy always won). The way she always signed her holiday cards with the drawing of a little ball point “ant.”
I’ll remember the time, a decade or so ago, my wife signed up to run the Disney Marathon. She went to bed early for the pre-dawn start time. At the time Aunt Judy lived in Florida, so we met at a local bar. We drank too many pints of Guinness, made friends at the bar. And laughed. A lot. I stayed out longer than I had intended, and the next morning was rougher than I had planned.
I will hold on securely to these thoughts. On Friday morning we will all wake up early, make the drive to New Hampshire to be with her, and say “Hello” again.