The first call came three days into the new year. When I saw her name blink on my screen, I swallowed hard. For some reason, I suspected this wouldn’t be a happy conversation. It wasn’t. A dear, dear friend’s test results were back. She had cancer.
Within weeks of that announcement, two other friends received similarly awful health news. In one case, a friend’s husband’s cancer had returned with a vengeance. This time, the disease had spread and his years-long battle would commence again.
In the days that followed, I participated in a flurry of prayer requests and text messages intended to lift spirits. Yet if I allowed myself to ruminate, a ripple of dread spread outward from the pit of my stomach. I felt dispirited, frightened, angry — and guilty. How selfish of me to co-opt someone else’s pain and fear!
Some years begin in a raging storm, with gales of upheaval and squalls of disruption. For me, 1995 was one of those. My first husband died of a heart attack in January, and from then on, it was one family catastrophe after another. When that year finally slipped into history, I felt as if I had survived emotional whiplash, only to be left as groggy as a boxer after a knockout.
This year I cannot claim the heartaches directly, but there’s always a companionable suffering, a vicarious anguish that accompanies bad news delivered by people close to us. Part of it, of course, is proximity and experience. I’m now of that age, as are most of my friends, when mortality may not be an intimate pal, but it’s certainly an acquaintance, one that pokes its head into our lives every so often.
We’ve experienced death, witnessed or suffered serious illness and, if we make it back to school reunions, can’t help but notice how our ranks are thinning. (Not to mention how gray and paunchy we all look!) Even as we speak bravely about encore careers and second chances, we realize we’ve already lived more than half our lives. Time, never plentiful, is slipping too quickly through our fingers. We must hurry to accomplish what we haven’t yet managed.
My friends’ health issues have affected me in two ways. That unsettling recognition of our own temporal existence? I suspect that’s part of growing older, as common as lower back pain and bifocals. More important, however, their illnesses have given me much-needed perspective about my petty worries. Nothing reshapes obsessions as quickly as true misfortune.
This year’s rocky first quarter also comes at a time when the world seems topsy-turvy, a carnival ride designed to inflict the most trepidation. North Korea is off the chain with it nuclear tests, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is threatening Iran, we’ve dropped the “mother of all bombs” on caves in Afghanistan and launched Tomahawk missiles in Syria. Russia remains a thorn in our side. For the first time ever I’m considering foregoing the news in order to bolster my flagging optimism.
Yet, I’m most alarmed by the danger close to home, the creeping menace that lurks among the cobwebs of the quotidian. Illness. Disability. Displacement. Loss, any kind at any time.
What to do, what to do?
“I just take deep breaths and move forward,” texts my brave friend who is her husband’s caregiver. “I think if I ever stop and think about it, I might just fall apart.”
And maybe that’s the answer: the not stopping. Maybe courage, the personal and the public, is all about modest actions. Maybe taking deep breaths, applying nose to the grindstone, taking one step, then another and another is how we defy adversity.