If you saw my friend in the check out line at the grocery store with an expensive bottle of wine, you might feel envious. Jan is a traffic-stopper. Her facial features are symmetrical and her skin is dewy perfection. You might assume she’s on her way to a dinner party with a better looking date than your husband.
When she came over yesterday, she wore a striking red tunic on her head with a matching red rose tucked behind her ear, a look only a movie star could pull off. It wasn’t one of those coverings that screams Breast Cancer in all caps like most head scarves do, no matter how cleverly they’re tied, piled, wrapped, or draped. Hers had the touch of a deliberate statement, a sense of style sported by a woman who can own any room she enters.
I couldn’t help contrasting her wrap with the one and only head cover I bought in anticipation of my own hair loss back when I got my diagnosis. The American Cancer Society sold me a white cotton skullcap that looked good on the model, but I knew better even as I entered my credit card. Those scraps of cotton were offered at two for fifteen dollars or one for eleven, and I visualized an underpaid laborer cranking them out in a dimly lit factory.
I’m not giving cancer an extra dime, I thought, and I ordered only one. It was comfortable but hideous, and I wore it all the time for nearly a year. My friend Rebecca sent me fun hats and a bright green wig, but I couldn’t find my playful side when it came to being bald, and trying to look glamorous hadn’t even occurred to me.
When Jan and her turban walked into my living room yesterday, I rushed to take her in my arms. We’ve met in person on only one other occasion, and it was just before she started treatment. Seeing her in person again overwhelmed me.
If it’s possible to touch grief, to taste it, to smell its fragrance, I would say that’s what I did when we embraced. After Jan’s first chemo session, she lost her child to suicide. On the morning of her daughter’s memorial service, Jan woke up with pneumonia. While we hugged, I brushed against the bottomless pit of her sorrow.
Looking at Jan’s manicured nails and curated outfit, no one would guess the depth of her suffering. It reminded me of a time in my life when I too endured a sustained season of grief.
During my twenties, my boss’s husband put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Then a friend with bi-polar disease killed his mother in a psychotic episode. Shortly thereafter, a friend fatally overdosed on street drugs. My friend Kathy made an unsuccessful attempt on her life and then my friend Glenda lay down on the blind curve of a freeway until an unwitting motorist ended her painful existence. It seemed at the time that sadness had no floor, that my very survival required me to trudge through one brutal moment at a time. Most people saw the smile on my face and never knew about my struggle.
Sometimes back then I pictured God throwing rocks at me, His aim spot-on, His appetite unquenchable. I was in therapy for trauma I experienced as a child and the series of bad choices that trauma prompted me to take, choices that piled one miserable circumstance on another.
Now, I recognize that my season of agony developed my ability to feel compassion for others. The pain I endured then still helps me bond with others in need.
I don’t know how Jan will survive the loss of her daughter or the effort cancer demands from people it ensnares in its web. I only know that we have to be gentle, to love one another every chance we get.
First Corinthians reminds us that “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
Sometimes love feels as thin as a strand of dental floss, but it’s there, undeniable as the rising sun, the stars at night, and the toil of the days. Ultimately, it’s all we have, and I’ve come to believe, no matter how difficult it is sometimes, that somehow, it’s enough.