In late summer, one of my closest friends, Rachel, received terrifying news. Though she had no symptoms, a test picked up a troubling indicator, and she learned that she has one of the more worrisome cancers, at an advanced stage. From one day to the next, feeling fine, then this.
She told everyone immediately. In the first weeks, while we struggled in shock along with her, I read an ad whose headline said, "Life is Too Short for Old Clothes". Like Rachel, I appreciate black humour, so my first thought was, Shouldn't that be, "If Life is So Freaking Short, Who Needs New Clothes?"
How does anyone cope with such news, which Rachel calls "surreal"? Probably not by ordering a cute top.
Rachel is basking in her family, listening to music in the middle of the night, going to meditation classes, undergoing conventional and complementary therapies, and beginning a blog so she can update us easily. She is pretty hinged, considering.
And I thought, What would I do, in her shoes—about to face surgery and multiple courses of chemotherapy? My first impulse would be to grab my loved ones, and—damn the expense—head for Tahiti or Capri or some other paradise, to spend time between treatments immersed in love, nature, memories and dessert every day. Or only desserts some days, why not?
But maybe I would find that less attractive than I imagine. Maybe all I would want is my own bed, a good conversation while sitting in my garden, a long soak in the neighbour's hot tub. I would put on my favourite earrings, a bit of make up, and a pretty head wrap, because my hair has gone on vacation too, without me. And that, so far, is Rachel's modus operandi.
At this magnitude of bad news, everything tilts, like a collision of tectonic plates. 'Now' is a different now. Medical terms swirl with the metaphysical; practical matters coexist with an intense appreciation of raspberries. Witness to a number of remarkable recoveries, we have hope and resolve.
An acquaintance who has had a decade-long remission buttonholes everyone she knows and asks, "Are you doing what you want to be doing?"
Why wait until hearing a such news to determine that? But we do.
I think of lines from Theodore Roethke's poem, "The Waking":
"I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go."
I'm in Toronto, where I traveled yesterday to hang out at Rachel's. A slice of lemon tart, some Eva Cassidy, the lowdown on "chemo daycare", and whatever else comes up—and it will, because she's expressive as ever: honest, acerbic, funny and vulnerable.
I'll reply to comments next week; today, I'm with my friend.
PS. Several readers wondered about Le Duc's Apple Crisp Tatin; if you would like the recipe, please e-mail me. It's a classic crisp with a caramel layer at the bottom.