The Cancer Club

My haven

For one hour, five days a week, weather permitting, I am happily paddling up and back in this beautiful pool. Since I started swimming there in the ‘70’s, it’s undergone major remodeling. But it sits in a depression below street level, is surrounded by a lovely park and when staring up at the sky on a cloudy day, is as close to paradise as I can get. Michael and I swam there a lot together when we were young and later, we brought our kids into that space. When I’m alone, I become quite meditative and often feel as close to him as I can get in the terrestrial universe. Most days, I see the “regulars,” people who also find their peace swimming laps, from the fast ones to the slow. Today I saw a woman who’s a friend of a friend, climbing into my lane from the opposite end of the pool. I hadn’t seen her since last year. I was trying to think of her name when we met in the center of the lane. She greeted me by name. I instantly felt her stress, literally emanating from her entire body. From past conversations, I remembered that her husband has had severe arthritic issues which profoundly impaired his movement. As his health declined, she was also shepherding her elderly parents through their declines and ultimate deaths. She was the ultimate caregiver for all of them. During the past year, her husband had been confined to a wheelchair and developed a terrible cough. For five weeks, he was treated for pneumonia. While at an appointment with a pulmonologist, he coughed so hard that he bled. The pulmonologist grabbed a hematologist and between them, thought his vitals were so bad that they admitted him to the oncology floor in the hospital. After a myriad of tests, they diagnosed a dreadful form of leukemia which was beyond their scope of treatment. They transported him to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis where he stayed for a few months.

Diana, as I soon recalled, remembered all that I went through during Michael’s five years with cancer. In the midst of her story about her husband, she told me that his brother was in the middle of his own issues with Merkel Cell carcinoma, the same disease as Michael’s. Long ago, back in 1989, the year both my parents were diagnosed with cancer, I’d vowed that whenever I was confronted with someone in the midst of the dreaded “C” word experience, that I’d always go toward them, instead of trying to make a polite but hasty retreat away from the challenging illness that can strike anyone at any time. Despite all the progress that’s been made in the past fifty years with targeted therapies and longer life options, cancer will still claim thousands of lives, often after trying the same old chemotherapies and radiation treatments that will simply fail. Always an awkward subject, at some point, even those closest to people in these end of life scenarios, will back away, draw boundary lines when the pain and anguish are too much, leaving patients and their loved ones feeling isolated and alien. That’s what Diana was pouring out to me in the pool, her distance from her friends who were supposed to be her allies, how the pandemic had made a tough situation feel virtually impossible. As I’d decided, I held my ground for this poor woman whose words were rushing geyser-like at me, with often no time for even the smallest response. I realized that not much I could say would matter. She instinctively knew that we were in the “Cancer Club,” and that made us friends, even for an hour. I did manage to ask her one question. Would she be able to forgive herself for those times when she was so completely spent that she wished her well-loved husband’s life would just end, that all this torture would be over? She was able to accept that query and understood that all caregivers whose bodies and minds reach a cracking point, eventually get to that unfathomable place, where the only release is the most awful thing imaginable. She answered, “I hope so. I’d better be.” And that was the end of today’s meeting of the Club.

Me in my pool in the ‘70’s, Michael’s leg on the lounge, taking the photo

I thought a lot today when I left my normally peaceful space. I’m years down the road from Diana’s dark times. I still see Michael’s face in front of me when I glide through the water. Mostly it fills me with desire instead of sadness. An odd but joyous feeling. Diana and her husband have no children and she is alienated from her only sibling. I have my kids nearby, along with two grandchildren. I’m expecting another in November. None of that is the same as an adored life partner but it helps a lot. My younger sister lives in the same town as me, another bonus. I’ve been in a dark mood lately, a combination of the repeal of Roe, our disgusting Supreme Court, three of whose justices lied under oath during their confirmation hearings, and the endless lies of the former president and his cult whose minds are closed to reality. I’ve been hiding under my own version of Frodo Baggin’s invisibility cloak. Mine isn’t woven by magic elves. I’m draped in music, old music from joyful times, from my South Side days of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, Marvin Gaye and Al Green, to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Entwined with them are The Allman Brothers, CTA, The Grateful Dead, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Pure Prairie League. These were the groups which played in the darkened bedrooms I shared with Michael, candles dripping down wine bottles as we lay entwined and sweaty, utterly consumed by each other. Yes there were protests, and the war and the politics, but none of that felt as dark as now, with our planet on fire and old white men trying to blast us back decades, destroying our progress.

I water and water and water my parched garden, managing to wrest my struggling flowers through the dry air and blistering sun. I read my books, and play fetch with my dog and check in with my friends, fewer in number now than the old days, which makes sense as I am less tolerant of people who drain rather than sustain me. And I pay attention to the world because I am, as always, my politics.

But today I was reminded that I will always be a member of the “Cancer Club.” I was the advocate extraordinare, for my parents and my Michael. For years I’ve met with patients and their families, sometimes only once, sometimes for longer, to provide a safe place and advice for any question. Today I held an important place for a suffering fellow caregiver. Maybe there will be more of that with her as the summer progresses. Perhaps one day, I’ll need to support myself in my own time of need. When you join, The Club is forever. I’m glad I’ve stayed true to that commitment. Even when it hurts and sneaks itself under my invisibility cloak.

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