I have a new, best friend. Her name is Sue. I have received a lot of gifts after my diagnosis with cancer. For example, I realized that although I consider myself a primarily lonely and isolated individual, I have a group of simply amazing friends. I never go through a chemo treatment alone. Someone is always here, even if they have to purchase expensive air fare, and even though being with me during chemo requires rubbing my feet and putting up with my horrible attitude. I’ll write more about all of these amazing people later, but for now, I want to write about Sue.
Sue is the best gift I’ve received as a cancer survivor. Sue and I met through an online chat website called www.colonclub.org I had posted several entries on the website and one day I received an email from someone named Sue. Sue explained to me that she had found my profile on the colonclub. She and I were diagnosed on the same day, and we had the same stage of colon cancer – Stage III. What was more, we were doing chemo on exactly the same days. Sue wanted to know if I wanted a penpal, someone to share experiences and insight with. I agreed happily, but at the time I still had no idea what a wonderful friendship would come of my fortuitous meeting with this new person.
Our emails to each other grew more frequent. On one occasion Sue sent me a picture of herself and her daughter. It was taken of them just a year or so ago, at a wine bar in Paris. When I looked at Sue’s image, I began to cry. She had such an amazing smile, and I could tell just from looking at her that this was someone who loved her life. She had a vitality in her 40-something smile that had always been missing from my own life. I cried because I worried that cancer had perhaps stolen this from her. I wanted to beat the living shit out of cancer, not because of what it had done to me, but because I feared that it had stolen something so precious from this woman, this wonderful person, and I feared that it would make her into a callous cynic like me. I would soon learn that Sue had not lost what I loved about her in this photo: she is a warrior times three, and she has enough vitality and love to save herself and me and hundreds of others.
Sue emails me every time I go through a treatment. She and I will ask each other, “have you made it through the other side yet?” We both know how chemo works. It knocks you down on all fours. And then, somehow, and quite magically, it’s over. The nausea and pain just end, like someone turning off a light switch. And then we go back to our normal lives: we run and spend time with family, and try to live a normal life for the 10 or so days we have until our next treatment. One time Sue emailed me to ask if I’d made it through, but I didn’t get back to her quickly enough. She emailed frantically: “are you okay? I’m worried.” She and I both worry about each other. We understand each other in ways that our families and friends simply cannot.
One time Sue asked me how I was doing “spiritually.” This was a tough question. I’m a Mormon by birth and raising, and an atheist by choice. I gave up God because I had come to think of him as a cruel authoritarian. Whenever I did pray in my life, it was usually in order to apologize – for some innocuous mistake or sin, for being gay, for whatever small infraction I had committed most recently. I prayed because I was afraid of God, because I didn’t want him to hurt me or someone I loved. And then, one day, I just quit talking to him altogether. I buried myself in intellectual life – and that became my God. But deep down, underneath, I still thought there was a God, and I assumed that he was mad as hell at me. So I figured that if I just left him alone, maybe “he” would just forget all about me. And after cancer, I assumed – unconsciously of course – that he hadn’t forgotten about me, and that now I was being punished for all of those suicidal thoughts and fantasies I had had as a teenager trying to come to terms with myself.
I explained most of this to Sue. And then she surprised me.
She explained to me that she had a different view of God. “I think God is just as pissed about our cancer as you and I are,” she wrote. She said that she did not think of God as an all-powerful being with the power to save and condemn. “There’s randomness in the universe, and I’m comfortable with that,” she wrote. When I read her email, it felt as if an enormous weight – 30 years worth of spiritual burden – had been lifted off of my shoulders. I felt as if, maybe, just maybe, I could once again have a spiritual life. Maybe, I thought, I could even pray – maybe it would be alright to do that.
One night I got home late and I checked my email. There was an email from Sue, only it was written by her daughter, Katie. Katie explained that Sue had to be taken to the Emergency Room. She had had cramps and pain for days. She had intestinal blockage due to some scar tissue that developed from her colectomy. She would have to have another entire surgery to remove the scar tissue. And she would have to delay her chemo treatments until she was well again. Sue – lying in a hospital bed somewhere in Rochester, New York, and in pain – had thought to have her daughter email ME. She was worried about ME!
I immediately began to weep in a way I have never cried before. I knew how terrifying this must be for her. When you are undergoing chemotherapy, your entire world becomes centered around FINISHING chemo. One’s biggest fear is that chemo might be interrupted, not only because this prolongs the horrors of chemotherapy, but because no matter how much we hate chemotherapy, we figure, at least it’s helping us, it’s killing the bad guys….so keep the stuff coming. I thought about how frightened she must be and my heart just split into a million pieces.
After reading Katie’s email, I cried and I went to my bedroom and I got down on my knees, just as I had done as a young Mormon before bedtime each night. And I prayed – for the first time in many years. I said, “please don’t let anything bad happen to Sue….make Sue well….and help her to be courageous and not afraid.” And I’m happy to report that Sue made a full recovery from her second major surgery, and she is now back on schedule for treatments. I don’t think this had anything to do with my prayers for her. It’s because Sue is, as I said, a real warrior. And it’s because that light in her smile that I saw in her picture still animates her. It animates me, too, most days. Cancer can take a lot of things from people, but it didn’t take that from her. And I figure, if there’s a God, it’s not some mean white-haired silverback living in she sky. God exists in the Spirit of people like Sue, and the strength they share with weaker people like me.
Sue and I have both applied to be colondar models. The colondar is a calendar put out by the colonclub to spread awareness about colon cancer in young people. We applied and insisted that we pose together. We hope we’ll get chosen, though we haven’t heard just yet.
Even if we do not get chosen, this much I know for certain. One of these days very soon I am going to fly to Rochester, New York so that I can meet Sue in person. And when I do, it’s going to be one of the best days of my life. We’re going to talk about her feminism, and her artwork (she’s a wonderful artist). We might go for a jog together or share a glass of wine (we both love wine). Or I might just sit there and look at her, if it doesn’t make her too uncomfortable, and contemplate all that she’s taught me and shared with me, the way she’s protected me in ways she’s probably unaware of.