It’s 2 am. I just arrived at in Abi’s room at the Sentara Heart Hospital.
As I was waking up, this entry was so clear and perfect. Yesterday, for all its yesterday-ness, brought with it two so perfectly timed moments that after two weeks of simply not knowing what to write, nor how to write it, I finally knew exactly what today’s entry was going to be about. And I woke up to an email from a friend that made it so perfectly clear exactly how it should be written.
But that was ninety minutes ago, and that clarity is fading - especially the how part. But I do know there’s a kernel of absolute truth in this post. And while it may not be clear from this initial draft, I’m certain the thing to do is get it out there into the universe now, and worry about making it a little smoother and easier to swallow some other time. After all, it takes a few years for bourbon to develop its character. So, too, might this.
Two weeks ago it was about what you can do for Abi. It was about living and giving and courage and being all-in. Right Now.
I love the response to that post. I love Esther’s letter and all of the emails that Abi’s received that affirm that people might be living better lives because she got cancer and she’s been willing to share her story. That’s got to mean something.
But tonight, I want to answer all those who tell me they feel terrible and helpless and impotent and inadequate and angry because they don’t know what they can do to make things better.
And there are a lot of you.
First things first. Of course you feel those things. Because you’re human you’re decent and you see these people that you love and you see that their twenty-seven year old daughter is dying. She’s. F***ing. Dying. And there’s not a single thing you can do to stop it from happening.
Not. One. Thing.
What kind of creature would you be if you didn’t feel helpless and impotent and angry? Isn’t that what empathy is, and isn’t empathy what it means to be human in the first place? I think it is, and I think it does.
Actually, I’m sure of that. And I’m not sure of much,.
But yesterday, two of you reminded me that while you may not be able to cure cancer, there is so much you can do that’s lovely and breathtaking and powerful, and you’re doing it already.
You’re sticking with us.
You’re hanging around.
And that’s the very best thing you can do.
Hanging around is really, really, unimaginably hard, especially when you can’t fix and can't cure and can't make it all right.
It’s so hard because every minute you hang around is a reminder that there is so much we simply don’t control. It’s a reminder of your own vulnerability. It’s a reminder that no matter how good and decent and hard-working and kind you are, bad things still happen.
If you live in a world where you might survive your children, then anything might be possible, and every single belief you ever had is subject to doubt. The sun may not rise in the east and the rain might not fall to the ground and rivers may not run to the sea. Justice and truth and beauty might all be just vapor in the wind. God may not be who you believed him to be because God is supposed to be benevolent and powerful and just and all those other things that you rightly learned in Sunday School.
But how can he be those things if he made a world in which you might survive your children?
It’s hard because you want to take away our pain and Abi’s pain. And you can’t. And is there anything more painful that being powerless to ease the suffering of one that you love?
No. There. Isn’t.
Unless you’re a little numb and can close your eyes to what is right in front of you, every moment that you hang around must be a little crisis of faith. A crisis of impotence.
And what could be more terrifying than not being sure, and not being able to do anything about it?
There are people for whom that is just too much. Go to any cancer blog, and you’re almost certain to find a post that talks to the friends who bailed, and how painful it was for the patient and caregivers.
But I can’t be angry at the bailers. I’ve been one.
I’ve bailed every time I’ve looked away from a child who was frail and balding and I didn’t know what to say so I just kept walking without making eye contact with them or their parents.
I’ve bailed even after Abi got sick. Think about that.
So for those people who had to walk away, it’s okay. It really is. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of. This is heady stuff.
Grace to you.
And if you come back today, or tomorrow or forty years from now, I’ll welcome you. Completely.
But if we don’t meet up again until we’re having a vodka and ginger ale and smoking cigarettes at John Prine’s club in heaven (he calls it the Tree of Forgiveness), well that’s okay. I’ll welcome you then, too.
Time check: 3:20. Abi’s is sleeping really well tonight. Mercifully.
Now, back to those of you who are here hanging around.
Let me tell you about conversation I had with someone on my way into hospital yesterday afternoon,
I was driving in alone, and the mind was working hard. Questioning so many things about what transpired on Friday. Questioning how well I had fulfilled my role as a father. Questioning how well I’d protected my daughter and how effectively I’d advocated for her before they took her in for her second procedure where they had to open up her chest - knowing how painful that would be for her and how much pain she’d already endured. And those questions always cycle out of control and into the unanswerable, “How did I let my precious daughter get cancer in the first place because my job as a father is to protect. Above all. To protect.”
And I called my sister. I was pretty sure she would answer the phone, and would know exactly what to do She wouldn’t try to tell me that I did right. She’d understand that I couldn’t be talked into being a good dad. She’d know that rational argument was vapid and ugly and disgusting and untrustworthy. She’d know all I needed was for somebody to sit with me in my wrecked-ness.
And as painful as it was for her to sit there, powerless and unable to cure anything, she did it anyway.
We literally wept together. She wept for me. She wept for herself, and for not being able to take it all away. Through her tears, she apologized to me…over and over again. Apologized for her impotence and helplessness.
How many times will I go back to this quote? If you’re a long-time reader, you’re probably over it. But this might be the most important and lasting thing that cancer has taught me about what it means to be a friend. What it means to care:
…The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Why is this so powerful to me? Because it recognizes the essential truth that it’s far harder face the reality of our powerlessness than it is to be able to make things better.
And it recognizes that powerlessness is where we live most of our lives.
And so few can tolerate it. Most refuse even to acknowledge it.
Oddly, I had a similar conversation last night with another friend. Another friend who was in tears at her inability to fix it. Who was stricken by the fact that she couldn’t make Abi better. Couldn’t take away all the pain.
And yet, there she was.
Reaching out despite her own desperate and impossible longing to make us all whole, and the pain of knowing that need would never be met.
And still, she hung around.
So for everyone who asks what you can do to help. That’s it. And it’s a monumental ask.
Be there. Hang around. Knowing all the while that it will be unsatisfying and intolerable.
But do it anyway if you can.
And if you can’t, no worries.
I’m still looking forward to that cocktail with you when we meet up later at the Tree of Forgiveness. We’ll both have a lot of friends there, and the music will be spectacular.