I’ve always enjoyed looking up. I love clouds, sunsets, the moon, stars and planets, day and night. I don’t mind gray skies which have more shades of color in them than we realize. I like watching the birds aloft and especially when they rest for a bit in the trees around my house. Today during a welcome warming from the arctic temperatures which have lasted awhile, I stood outside for a long time, head craned up, scanning and thinking. For almost a year, I’ve depended on the open space in my yard, staying outside almost every day for hours, combating the sense of confinement that’s been a challenge for so many people. I’m fortunate to have a decent-sized space that’s populated with animals who provide distraction and a garden to which I’ve been devoted for most of my adult life. As I looked up this afternoon, I thought a bit about the images and sounds being beamed back to earth from Mars. I’m one of the people who struggles with balancing the marvel of space exploration and the science behind it, with the frustration of spending so much money when our own planet and its inhabitants are in dire need. I won’t be around long enough to know the ultimate fate of this overheated ball we live on but I’m fearful as we fail to meet the challenges of turning back the climate clock. And for the millions living hungry, unsheltered and under threat of violence? It’s all so big and overwhelming. Sometimes I need to pause. To stop looking at the big picture and focus on the smaller issues. The inside issues that aren’t out there under discussion in the grand and almost incomprehensible universe. All the small inside stuff that makes up our ultimately infinitesimal lives which can feel so huge and important. And which for most of us will be whisked away into forgotten insignificance, as if we were never really here. I’m pausing before getting swept back up in the daily flow. Ironically, though it hasn’t felt much like a flow since the pandemic changed everything, making life feel rather like a standstill, the flow goes on constantly, whether or not we can remain aware of its movement.
Social media is fraught with complicated problems: invasiveness, dissemination of uncontrolled disinformation and conspiracy theories, subversive marketing, and powerful, manipulative executives. Often it feels like too much, stressful and wearing. I know many people who’ve walked away and I get that. I’ve found that the space provides me with a sense of connection that I’ve needed more in these past four years since Michael’s death, and especially during social distancing. For my part, I try to express my views of the world, often angry and dark, while punctuating those vituperative posts with beautiful photos of nature, artworks and interesting stories about life. I also publish my blog on these platforms in addition to this one. I’ve been mystified by the responses to my blog. I don’t utilize it to sell anything or to be an influencer. I’m leaving a written record for my kids, of my life and their dad’s, the events which came before them, along with whatever else currently occupies my mind. I also wanted to share experiences that might help someone, particularly in the cancer world which dominated years of my life. A hard road indeed. That individuals I’ve never seen and never will see have found something in my words which resonated with them is a bonus for me. And unexpectedly, more than that.
Yesterday I woke to the news that my friend Frank had died. When I say my friend Frank, I’m still keenly aware of the somewhat baffling circumstances of our relationship. I’ve actually never met Frank in person nor spoken to him in any other manner than a technological one. A few years ago, both of us were commenting on the posts of an old and dear friend of mine. One day, I received a friend request from Frank. I wrote my old friend and asked who this person was, a decent legitimate guy or someone to ignore. Generally, I’m pretty friendly but you never know what can happen that you might regret in the ether world. I didn’t want to make a mistake I’d be sorry about later. My friend assured me that Frank was a great guy, referring to him as a “salt of the earth” kind of person. I accepted his request and so began the average type of chit-chat typical of what transpires between people who don’t know much about each other. I found that in general, we seemed to share similar political views and a sense of humor. I learned that Frank was in a second marriage with a younger woman with whom he had a young and deeply adored son. He’d been through some hard times but was enjoying this new and seemingly unexpected chapter in his life. He was in remission from liver cancer, had figured out what was important to him, and seemed happy and grateful. At the same time I was on my road through the grief following Michael’s death and his lengthy bout with cancer. I posted many photos of our decades together from our early years to recent ones after we’d made our beloved family.
After a time, I realized Frank was reading my blog posts which appear on a link to Facebook. A thread in this blog goes back a few years and is the story of how Michael and I went through his cancer from diagnosis to death. He had a rare orphan cancer that affected about 1500 people a year at that time, one for which there was no cure and very little research or data. We invented our response to that enormous challenge. I’d vowed to write our story, first to honor Michael’s courageous struggle, and secondly, to provide anyone else who might get a dreadful prognosis with a sort of road map for pushing both the personal and medical boundaries of such a cancer. Multiple chapters about this saga are on my website under the title “Be 278.”
At some point, after Frank started reading my blog, he began sending me messages and comments about it, outside the typical banter which had previously been our more average interactions. I found out that Frank had lapsed from remission well over a year ago and was going through some treatment and other interventions. He and his family split time between living in his hometown, Chicago and her country of origin. For a time he was medically stable, but ultimately, while living abroad in his wife’s home, his cancer returned and was beyond the capabilities of the doctors there. He returned to Chicago to receive the best possible care and was told that his situation was terminal but that with targeted chemotherapy, he could get more time. He went forward with a variety of options but over a few months, he began his final decline. The following are messages we exchanged in mid-December while Frank was reading the end of my story of Michael’s cancer.
From Frank – December 19, 2020
I have to try hard not to sob. I allow the tears but no sobbing. I identify so much altho I am not nearly as sick. Confusion and paranoia abounds as does anger and some self pity. I also have no appetite for the first time in my life and I am losing weight consistently. Down 55 lbs so far. I am on chemo but know nothing of my future. I do know they say incurable.
From me – December 19, 2020
Oh Frank. I’ve been thinking of you often these past weeks, knowing you’re in treatment and what that can be like. The myriad of emotions and thoughts that people contend with during their private grappling with disease is so intense. I hope you can find your moments of respite with _________. For us, we literally lived in minutes, trying to be aware of the good ones during the avalanche of everything else. Sending all good feelings your way.
From Frank – December 22, 2020
In reference to your constant complaining at the hospital, me too…..have found that the old axiom “a squeaky wheel gets the most grease.”, is true. I am still out patient at ________ (half mile from my home) and they are wonderful. Still I complain when appropriate. _____is a wonder wife and nurse, also confidant….I was afraid to share early on but did and the resulting empathy was dearly appreciated. Easy now. ______ a constant source of living in the moment.
That was the last time I communicated directly with Frank. I had a pretty good idea of what he and his family were going through and felt odd that our connection was so filament-like that there was nothing more I could do but send an occasional note. His adult daughter took over his Facebook page to let his many friends know that he appreciated greetings and warm messages sent his way. Literally the day before she reported his death, I’d written my friend through whom this unexpected link had developed, to thank him for having brought this lovely man into my life. He texted me to let me know Frank had died in addition to my seeing the public post and to share his sadness. Neither of us could’ve imagined this just a few years ago.
In addition to the companionable grief that I continue to carry for Michael, this unimaginable year has brought more sadness than I ever imagined. All those hundreds of thousands who died from Covid and the wreckage their deaths left among their families and friends. I’ve despaired over the suicides of three young people in the past ten months, who for whatever reasons, couldn’t get above the stress of this dark time. I know people coping with illness and the threat of loss of their loved one. I lost the most recent in a long line of animal companions. So yes, it was time for a pause. Time to reflect a bit on the smaller but significant moments in life that can get engulfed in the tsunami of news until these events are blurred into nothingness. Today I took some time. I recommend it.