I hate it when people say cancer made them a better person or was a blessing in disguise or ... But I cannot deny that there have been some fringe benefits to my illness: the get-out-of-jail cancer card (along with the ever handy chemo-brain-made-me-do-it voucher) and the honorary degree in medical science—but most of all the cancer friend.
I met J in radiation chambers. I had been rebuffed in the waiting rooms of doctor's offices and chemo clinics often enough that I wasn't making any overtures. But J reached out to give me a crash course in Radiation 101—and even wrote my notes for me: where to get a free radiation bra, what unguents to use on my burnt flesh and, most generous, her phone number and e-mail.
Since then she has given me crash courses in other areas of her peculiar expertise: how to raise my children (she doesn't have biological ones but earned her chops from eons of volunteering in after-school programs), which '70s sitcom that familiar-looking actor starred in, how to create a high-culture experience out of a low-brow cruise.
Now she's teaching me a lesson I don't want to learn: how to survive a mortal shipwreck. No, she's not dying of cancer. But her brother is. One brother has already died of the rare intestinal malignancy, and now the other brother is dying of it too. Alzheimer's took her father last year, and her mother is slowly slipping beneath the waves of dementia. That leaves J, who herself is none too steady on her feet, to haul the masts and bail the ballasts—whatever the hell you do in a shipwreck, she's doing it.
Oh, and the ship's going down in Florida, and her crew is in New York, so she's all alone in the stormy seas of family. And has been for nearly a year. So what do you do when you're shipwrecked and surrounded by gnashing sharks of fear and loneliness and sadness? You get out your handy-dandy camera and start snapping pictures of the flora and fauna. You learn how to drive so you can have a secret life. You sign up for quilting classes and make a quilt for your dying brother. You join Gilda's Club, because Trouble is everyone's middle name there.
But mostly you just make do, because you have to.