My parents raised me to believe that I should expect to be happy. Always. And that if the life around me didn’t make me feel happy, then I should do something different. It was a basic belief system of sorts. “If you don’t like where you are, you should move.” I mean, we are people. We can move whenever we need to. We are not trees planted so deeply into the soil that we need a crane to help us out.
My family gripped onto that premise when mom was diagnosed. The doctors gave us information on a need to know basis, completing each carefully crafted statement with: everyone is different. At times we found comfort in that statement, and yet at other times, it seemed to mean nothing at all.
One thing we knew for sure was that she had Pancreatic Cancer. The other thing we learned quickly, thanks to famous Googling-research was that her best chance of survival was surgery to remove the tumor. We were excited about the notion actually, in a way that seemed unnatural, but we needed something to believe in. And if that something was living vicariously through the fight of Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze, then so be it. That is, until they titled it stage 4 Pancreatic and Liver Cancer. Once that happened, there was no more talk of surgery. But there would not be silence. After all, we were not trees.
Mom began talking to everyone she met. Strangers, friends, parking lot attendants, and secretaries…She wasn’t complaining, just sharing.
“Hi, how are you today?” the grocery clerk asked
“Not too good,” mom answered. “I have cancer. Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer.”
I can’t tell you how that must have been for the people who weren’t expecting much more than a “good, thanks,” but it didn’t matter. She had a story to tell and she was about to tell everyone. More than that, each time the words passed her lips; she prayed she would better understand it herself. She claimed she couldn’t stop herself.
“It just comes out of me,” she would say. And so it went, until a few days before her appointment at Sloan Kettering Hospital. We had heard rumors that they might tell her to get her affairs in order…that she didn’t have much time. That they might be able to start treatments to simply keep her comfortable, but not much more. We didn’t know if the rumors were true or not, but we heard them and could hear their whispers all day long. We kept moving anyway. After all, we weren’t trees dug deep below the earth.
It was a chilly Saturday morning at Long Beach Island as she stood along the water silently praying that this would not be her last visit to the summer home she had come to love. Our summer home: ‘our island in time.’ It was then that she noticed another woman near the water, who naturally said hello and asked: “Hi, how are you?”
Mom could not have known in the depths of her prayers, that they were about to be answered by this complete stranger. A stranger who took the time to simply ask the question: How are you?
Mom told her story again. Yet this time, the woman reached into her bag and gave her the phone number of a doctor that she insisted she call.
“Today,” she said.
It was Saturday and even as I retell the story now, I am not clear if this woman was really a woman at all.
Mom called the doctor that afternoon, and as the woman had said, he answered, promised to see her Monday and also said he could help.
“Tell my secretary that if my schedule is filled, I will see you at lunch or after hours, but that I need to see you.”
This doctor was about to save her life. We surely didn’t know it then, but I would be lying if I told you that we didn’t have an immediate sense of hopefulness. I mean, no matter how skeptical of a person you are, this scenario would give you hope simply because it couldn’t be explained. Mom couldn’t explain it. Nor could we. But we could see that her ability to keep sharing, hoping…and moving, ultimately lead her to the one last woman beside the water, with one last hope.