It's not easy knowing how to handle this strange period of my life, nor is it easy for those who love me.
On my end, there are basically two approaches as to how much one publicly shares when he or she gets the dreaded cancer death knell. Some patients are extremely private and keep the news among immediate family only, which means friends, acquaintances and extended family are shocked when this person “suddenly” passes.
This approach can sometimes elicit terrible anger, sadness and resentment among the aggrieved, who feel robbed of those last days, last moments and last goodbyes with their dying loved one.
But others, like yours truly, by nature have a big mouth and couldn’t keep a secret stuffed within me if I tried, certainly not one about myself. (I do, however, put the secrets of others “in the vault.”) One reason is that I don’t have that immediate family to share with or lean on. I don’t have children or a partner, which many cancer patients call their “rock,” provided, of course, that said partner or children are not psychotic. Those scenarios do indeed exist, and frankly, I think those cancer patients are in a far more miserable situation than those of us who have to go it alone.
So one has to be grateful for what is going right. For example, I'm a singer/songwriter and writer, so I’m very comfortable sharing certain details of my life, as most often that’s the fodder for my creations. We’re all humans dealing with all the same issues, so my general motto is…why be secretive about anything?
But in going this cancer journey alone, in a way the world becomes my family, and I’ll sometimes blurt out to total strangers some detail regarding my bizarre cancer story, particularly if it’s a bad day. Naturally, I judge the person carefully (if quickly) before making such a share, using my intuition that this is a kindred and kind soul, and remarkably, I’m almost always right.
I’m thinking of my new acquaintance Brian, who works at my local Trader Joe’s as he has that kindness. Brian can’t be more than 30, and he and his young wife are about to have their second child, which I learned about in our frequent (albeit short) talks about our lives. One day Brian just happened to be my checkout person, and I don’t know what possessed me, but when he asked how I was doing, I told him I was having a really bad day because of my cancer symptoms, and when I began to get teary, he stopped everything he was doing and looked straight at me with tears in his eyes himself.
Not surprisingly, we now look forward to seeing each other when I go for groceries every Friday during my errand run. He’s become one of those new threads in the fabric of my life now, as I’m finding that loved ones who you'd think would rally during a diagnosis like this are slowly making themselves scarcer and scarcer.
In fact, a neighbor across the hall, Alex, who I’d been friends with for ten years, has vanished completely. Alex has some developmental problems, so our friendship started when I began helping him with tasks he had trouble accomplishing, like filling out forms or understanding his health insurance. He was one of those people in life who sadly has few friends, as those around him find him rather odd in the way he can just stare at you along with other socially awkward traits. (At one point, he even had terrible hygiene.) But I always stuck by him and even found him a local church to join where he finally bonded with some loving male friends, who have now become his buddies.
Naturally, I was happy for him that he found these new pals as it took the weight off of me a bit (he would often say I was his only friend, which made me uneasy), but ever since my diagnosis 18 months ago, Alex has vanished completely. Once I could no longer help him, and now that he has other friends to fill my shoes, he’s gone, something I never would have guessed would happen. His excuse for not seeing me early on was that too many people were dying on him, making the crisis about him rather than me, so I've just closed the book on that friendship.
Yet if I’m honest, other…closer… friends and family have gone quiet, too, a phenomenon that apparently many cancer patients face after their diagnosis, particularly if their cancer is dire. I suspect that the reason is this: Death is just fucking freaky, and I understand that. Knowing that I now have an estimated date of departure, these loved ones simply cannot handle something so surreal, so frightening, and I get it as I’m having trouble with this creepy shit myself.
In a way, I think they’re simply practicing for when I won’t be here anymore. It’s like they’re experiencing the grief now in a long extended way instead of staying close to me and then feeling the sudden shock of when I go, even though my passing was anticipated.
But I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t sadden me. The loneliness of this journey is profound enough, even if I had twenty people around me day in and day out. But the fact that I’m walking this path very much alone is only intensified when the phone calls lessen and the brunches become fewer.
And so I reach out to people like Brian, and I seek out new means of support, as difficult as that may be when one isn’t feeling well. I’ve also recently joined a new online support group for older gals with cancer, and I’m surprised at how much I’ve come to know and like these women. And of course I give thanks for the friends who’ve actually upped their game in how frequently they come for visits. Two (separately) came from California to visit. They are jewels like no other.
Perhaps my biggest source of comfort is that I’ve continued to write music and will start releasing new songs in 2024. I was recently interviewed by the New York Times because of a comment I wrote under an op-ed piece about the loneliness epidemic. (Apparently I'll be featured in an online Times video in December rather than a printed story.)
By the interview”s end, I was talking about how meaning can sometimes be the greatest companion of all as nothing I experience, no matter how bad, feels wasted. The act of creating something out of this sadness, like writing a song or blog essay, makes these dark days feel just a bit brighter as I’ve now given them a purpose, which is to connect with all those who suffer similarly.
But of course I can’t have brunch with meaning nor can I ring it up on a night when I find myself in tears over a world that has shifted so profoundly and so drastically. I need my loved ones for that, and they're in short supply these days.
I know they're scared, I know they're heartbroken, and I know I remind them of their own inevitable fate. But how I wish they would visit. I'm so tired, and I'm getting more tired all the time. I need you, my peeps. Where did you go?