Time well spent

A few years ago I was walking through a local mall with my daughter and saw a kid about her age wearing a backpack and holding hands with a young woman. He was a gorgeous little boy, with black hair and huge black eyes. His eyes reminded me of my daughter's. There was a name tag on the backpack. The last name was unusual but one that I recognized as that of a guy I grew up with---and this little boy looked just like him.

So I politely asked the woman if she was D's wife. She laughed and introduced herself as a family friend. My friend D and his wife were in California getting her cancer treatment.

I'd heard that D's wife had been diagnosed with cancer shortly after giving birth, but I hadn't really seen D in years. He was one of the nice kids in the neighborhood, brilliant but not overly nerdy, kind, and not into torturing other kids. I figured he must have married a wonderful woman. And I was right.

I'm not sure how we all became friends, but somehow we did. My wife and his hit it off immediately. She was never "our friend with cancer" but just our friend. Still, there were reminders that she wasn't entirely well. A couple of years ago, she started to experience a cough and some pain in her side. Despite this, we went to a side-splittingly funny movie where she alternately laughed and cried. We found out a little later that she had broken a rib.

My friend has been in the hospital for a while. It's a long story, and not a good one, so we'll leave that be, but it's given me an opportunity to spend a lot of time with her. And while I'd rather hang out at their pool with the kids eating Chinese food, this time together has been remarkable.

Despite what the Lifetime network would have you think, illness isn't pretty. Our tendency to glamorize illness (perhaps to gain some control of our fears) has not made it any less unpleasant. The Victorian era saw a glamorization of consumption (tuberculosis) in literature. In one of his first stories (Metzengerstein), Edgar Allen Poe wrote:

The beautiful Lady Mary! How could she die?- and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious- to depart in the heyday of the young blood- the heart of all passion- the imagination all fire- amid the remembrances of happier days- in the fall of the year- and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous autumnal leaves!

This may have seemed a better death than many others available at the time, but for whatever reason, tuberculosis came to embody tragedy and beauty, soulfulness and sadness. In the U.S. and Europe today, tuberculosis is rarely fatal. Cancer seems to have taken the place of tuberculosis, with innumerable books and movies depicting the beauty and dignity of suffering from cancer.

While there is a great deal of dignity to be found among those who are ill, there is little beauty in suffering. What I have enjoyed about my time with my friend is her humor and love; her husband's intelligence and kindness; her friends' devotion. That is where the beauty is, not in her disease. The disease is the nasogastric tube, the nausea, the abdominal pain. The disease is wanting a piece of pizza you can't have, wanting to watch your child grow up but being uncertain if you will even see his next birthday.

It's not just the patient who fails to see the glamor in suffering. Friends and family aren't so enamored of it either. It's common for people to find themselves alone when they are suffering the most. It's no fun to watch someone suffer, and many times friends will stay away to protect themselves.

But spending time with someone who is ill is a privilege. As a physician I am allowed to share in the intimacy of illness and dying. As a friend I am allowed to share it in a completely different way. If she weren't ill, I would never have this much time with her and her husband. I would never have this much time with her other friends. But I would trade every minute of this time for another summer by the pool, another side-splitting laugh at the movies, or a play date for our kids. There is no glamor in her illness, an illness which she fights with humor and dignity. The beauty is in her, and in her family. It is in the love they share with their friends, in their willingness to continue to open their hearts when most of their energy is spent fighting this bastard of a disease.

There is no beauty in disease. The beauty, such as it is, is in the time spent together.

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Peter - I was going to say thanks for calling me a "young woman." Instead I want to thank you for everything you've done for D's wife. She is 101% magic. She is everything that is good about this world (and then some), and cancer is everything that is not. She (and we) are lucky to have you.

By D's friend (not verified) on 26 Apr 2010 #permalink

After my mother died (of cancer) twenty-three years ago, I felt I had learned a great deal about myself, life, death, and suffering.
But I could have happily lived all the rest of my life without that knowledge.
You're right.
I would trade all that self-knowledge for one afternoon with my Mom, sitting at the kitchen table shooting the breeze.

By CanadaGoose (not verified) on 26 Apr 2010 #permalink

Peter, what a wonderful heartfelt story you have written about a most beautiful human being. She has more depth than any ocean and more soul than any human. She can make you laugh and cry at the same moment, she is so special.

By nancy spector (not verified) on 27 Apr 2010 #permalink

What a beautiful expression of love and compassion for a special woman and her family and friends.

By Cousin Diane (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

I would give anything to talk to my mother-in-law again. Just to talk to her and tell her how beautiful and special her 3 year old granddaughter is. Her 8 year battle with pheochromacytoma and death from the disease was far from glamorous. During her final months, she suffered so much. I wish I didn't have to carry with me that last time we spoke and I held out my daughter to her so she could kiss her head. The problem with Cancer is the people it leaves behind.

By Sxydocma1 (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

she has been my friend since high school and i feel very lucky to know her. while she and i haven't spoken in ages for no other reason than things like that happen, i think of her often. and i have been sending positive vibes out in hopes that they find and embrace her.
this is a beautiful post. thank you for sharing it.

Doctor -- You truly understand what it means to find meaning and bring comfort in face of awful illness. I am privileged to work with palliative care experts, including physicians and board certified, professional chaplains who serve all regardless of religion or beliefs, and I'm confident that the more Americans know about the benefits of palliative care, the more they will ask for it. Thank you for this insightful post and for spreading the message.