"Life is too short for..."

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.



Janice Riggs said…
Live is too short for keeping your feelings to yourself; tell people you love them. Even if it startles them. You may not get another chance!
LauraH said…
I'm glad you're with your friend, your presence will mean so much to her.
Susan said…
Such an important message today. Thank you.
I so enjoy your writing style, even when the subject is painfully difficult. Such well-turned phrasing both takes the edge off, and brings into sharp focus, the horrifically terrifying subject.
Life *is* too short.
Wishing you and your friend peace and focus.
I'm so sorry to hear about your friend. It is a good thing that you were able to travel there to spend some time with her. I hope she is currently well enough to get out for a stroll with you in the autumn sunshine.
Unknown said…
Blessings be upon you both.
materfamilias said…
So sorry to hear about your friend. Wishing you both strength and joy and hope. My year began this way and I've really been paying attention to lessons learned. Thank you for the so very articulate reminder.
RoseAG said…
Best wishes for your friend!

My husband and I have both suffered serious illnesses, with really good fortune, but it does change you. My tolerance for pay-offs in the long-run is a little shorter than it used to be. Today is a gift, that's why they call it the present.

Since it sounds like your friend has some kind of cancer, I'd urge you to urge her to connect with other people who suffer this same condition on-line. It's great to have your friends around,but sometimes your best ear is that of someone who has been exactly where you are.
Madame Là-bas said…
It is so important to show our feelings and concern for our friends. Wishing your friend whatever she needs to deal with this difficult time.
Swissy said…
I am so sorry to hear of your friend's diagnosis. Your post today answered, through questioning, many things for me, things that had been slowly growing in my mind. How would/will I face such a serious illness? And am I doing what I want to be doing? My answer to the second question is a very affirmative yes. As to the first question, I don't know, of course, but your words help me to consider the possibilities.
Dr. V.O. said…
Dear Duchesse, I'm sending my very best wishes to you and your friend; there is nothing like that kind of life-shock, but she is handling it straightforwardly with such verve and elan. I am glad you are spending time together, that is so precious, so I hope it's filled with desserts, joy, and deep connection. Your post was beautiful and has touched me and your other readers. XOXO
Adele said…
Rachel is fortunate to have a friend like you. Sometimes it's not even what we say, or do, for loved ones in difficult times, it's just the fact that we show up and are present (whether physically or just emotionally, if the geographic distance is too great). Fingers crossed that everything turns out as well as it possibly can for her.
Whenever I debate what I should or shouldn't do, applying the "what will I regret on my death bed" test always seems to make things clear.

I am so sorry for your friend - it sounds like she is fortunate to have you and other loving people in her inner circle. I also have a dear friend who just received a terminal diagnosis, in her case it's a slow process. I can try to imagine how I would feel in her shoes but I don't think it's possible unless you are the one experiencing it. The gift that she gives those around her is a reminder of how precious and fleeting life can be.
une femme said…
I've been thinking about this post since last week and am holding a good thought for your friend. This hits close to home, as "what do you WANT to do?" is a question that's been on my mind a lot lately. Having experienced the loss of parents in recent years who were active and in good health until they suddenly weren't, I know that time should never be taken for granted. I'm glad you had the opportunity to spend some time with her.
Sue said…
I used to love my mother in law's comment, "I'm too old to buy green bananas...". She lived in Queensland and would buy bananas every week.
Duchesse said…
Sue: I enjoy that kind of humour; when asked "How are you?", one of my parent's friends would reply, "Upright."

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