by Kylie Stamm
March 5, 2018
A few months ago, one of my lifelong best friends was visiting with me and we talked about the meaning of life, exchanged thoughts about whether or not there was a higher power, and challenged each others’ views on religion, faith, and whether or not things “happen for a reason”. Did I mention that she is living with Stage IV Neuroendocrine Cancer and was diagnosed last February?
Sometimes that sentence still takes my breath away like I'm saying it for the very first time.
This post is in response to one of Chris’s latest posts. Sitting outside on a cold, snowy day in Ithaca, New York reading through his “Thirty-six questions you ask yourself after a doctor tells you cancer will ‘almost certainly take your daughter’s life” ate away at my soul and made me laugh from the pit of belly, all in one. It’s been just about fifty-six weeks since her diagnosis. Each step of the way, I resisted the urge to write how I felt. Once, I wrote a letter to her. That’s as much as I could convince myself to do until now. Reading Chris’ post, I was affirmed in what I’ve always known, what she’s always encouraged, and what I’ve struggled with this whole time: I’m allowed to feel. And oh do I feel.
If you know me at all, you know that I bury myself in my passions: advocating for underserved communities in work; digging deeply into understanding and feeling with loved ones; transporting myself into adventures and love in the pages of books; overenthusiastically taking mental pictures of my feet on land across the world in my travels; hanging my head low in my forward fold; smiling up at snowflakes as they fall from the sky onto my cheeks. Rarely do I stay in the surface. What way is that to live, truly? Mindy Kaling describes best friends as a “tier” - it’s a level that you reach, not a singular person. I believe that translates into every aspect of my life. Everything that I’m invested in gets just about my full heart once it crosses into the tier - I’ve deemed something of the highest level of importance. Most days I think it’s the sweetest blessing because my life is a beautiful kaleidoscope of humans, art, imaginary worlds, nature, heartfelt emotions, and purpose.
But this is called “what it feels like when your best friend has cancer”, right? So, as the kind of human who lives so deeply, what does it feel like?
That question knocked the wind out of me.
I accept a future without Abi in the physical sense... one day. In the same vein, I also hide from a future without Abi one day.
People say things all the time and I understand them: “anyone can be taken from us tomorrow”; “some of us have already lost so many”; “it’s a part of life”. All true. All completely true.
But what it feels like to live and love someone who is actively dying in this manner is arguably a different feeling, a different grieving process, a different suspenseful, anxiety-filled, intentionally planned day-to-day with no “end date”, as wildly morbid as I know that sounds. Let me be perfectly clear: I have no desire for an end date. There’s no countdown. But, there is acceptance.
There is a realistic understanding of diagnosis, of time, of death.
I’ve had my own moments where I get lost down a rabbit hole. It’s selfish and dark down there. I rarely share these thoughts, but they sit on my chest in a ball of anxiety that can completely immobilize me. I can feel myself in my body. I know I’m on earth. I’m conscious, I’m alive; but I feel like I’m watching myself and I can’t move. I play scenes from a hypothetical wedding in my mind that I don’t even know if I want. Will she be standing by my side, or will there be a pair of shoes placed beside me in the spot where she would stand?
I think about if I choose to bring a child or children into my world one day. Will they know their Auntie Abi? Or will they just hear stories and know there was a woman who held incredible space in my heart unlike any other, long before a critical life event altered our daily perspectives?
I picture visiting the Rhodens and the Mayers, especially her mom and dad. I don’t know what it would be like. No matter how much time passes, I picture a hug with John bringing immediate tears into my eyes. I think about all the June 10ths, February 14ths, December t-w-o e-i-g-h-t’s, and September 10th’s that will come. Dates that will always remind me of her, dates I will ultimately live without her.
March 14, 2018… finishing the post
I think about being teenagers, constantly. I think about riding around in Ringo, her metallic blue punch-buggie affectionately named after a Beatle, zipping around our tiny hometown streets. I think about playing with Creeper, her (at the time) fancy camera we’d take to the park, around the neighborhood, and into the wildflower fields to capture and savor the beauty of our day-to-day life. We still share that enthusiasm now. I think about “helping her” clean her room, which really looked like me enthusiastically cleaning her room while she gabbed on and on about some cute boy or Mrs. Kennedy giving her a hard time… again. I think about spending hours in the pool in the summer sun. It was hard to find a friend who liked playing in the water, feeling the coolness on the skin and the calming peace that being underwater on a hot summer day brings. I think about board games, puzzles, games, games, and more games. I then I think about cooking and food. And food, and food, and food. Did I mention games and food?
I think about moments.
I think about memories.
I think about time.
What does it feel like? It feels like there isn’t enough of anything. It feels greedy and painful and lonely and full and exploding with love and horrible all at once. It feels scary and infuriating. It feels hopeless AND hopeful. Try to imagine that.
It feels like screaming at the top of your lungs while driving home from a perfectly normal and happy day at work. It feels like tears streaming down your face while ordering a cup of coffee from Starbucks and losing yourself for just a moment before remembering that you haven't ordered yet. It feels like walking around with a void in your heart after you check the calendar at work at realize you haven't been with her for fourteenth, fifteenth, or sixteenth round of chemo the way you were able to for rounds one, two, three, four, five, and six. It feels like listening to another tier one friend and suddenly realizing that time passed (how much time?) and not knowing what they said.
It feels like unexpected drops in your stomach on roller coasters or dramatic car rides when conversations go up and down in an instant: from Disney movies to processing the realization that she won't have children to watching Disney movies with her again. It feels like restlessness sitting in a meeting and having no idea why people waste their breath on the smallest worries. It feels like wondering if you've been a "good-enough" friend, daughter, or sister over the last year to anyone because your soul feels pulled back and forth like an intense round of tug-of-war and you keep falling down and letting go. It feels like fear to enthusiasm and back to fear everytime anyone in the family calls, including her, because you just don’t know what kind of day it is.
It feels like a pit in your stomach after a busy or fun-filled day, realizing you haven’t thought about your best friend with cancer in the last six hours. Even if you know how silly it is and that she has no expectation to think of her constantly. And still not knowing if it's “okay”; not knowing if you're okay.
It feels like going to the movies, going out to eat, and going hiking alone because other people’s thoughts and feelings are so loud that it sounds like one hundred angry birds are screaming in your ear at the same time. It feels like the dread of opening 46 unread text messages and 600 unread emails because you don’t know what to say or how you're doing. You don't know if you want to hang out.
Most of the time, you don't.
It also feels like snuggling with your best friend in the middle of the day with a puppy and a cat in the mix. They are so fluffy. (Please spend one moment imagining the softness of their fur on your own hands.) It feels like a girls' weekend to the beach, with Ash and Abi buried under the covers while Jackie reads ghost stories and you pretend not to listen. It feels like cool wind blowing across your face on a suprise warm winter day out on the boat, looking over your shoulder to see her face at peace, smiling in the sun.
It feels like courage and vulnerability and raw sadness and joy and fear and hope and sorrow and love constantly in one conversation on the couch on a random Tuesday. It feels like laughing from the depths of your belly over the phone, catching up or fighting over your yet-again-failed Snapchat streak after a few days or weeks apart. It feels like savoring her out of breath giggles as she records you and Lizzie making a three part insta-video with Frooties, just because, and forgetting that other humans may see it years from now and have no idea why it was funny to anyone.
It feels like the warmth of the fireplace calming your spirit into a group nap in the living room with John and the animals because you can do whatever you want (most days). It feels like chalky hands covered in embossing powder and craft projects with the enthusiasm of starting something new, contributing to something meaningful. It feels like the Christmas Eve (or Christmas in February) anticipation for the popcorn kernels to pop and her drizzle of the hearty pinch of salt over your favorite late night treat. It feels like the comfort of counting down - five, four, three, two, one, HAPPY NEW YEAR! - bringing in each year with love and an all-you-care-to-have photo shoot.
You know that time you received the most thoughtful, simple gift when you least expected it? The moment you realized someone was paying attention to you, and they care so much about you that they remembered? You were so taken aback it was hard to even process your appreciation fully.
What do you do? You just try to take it all in, express your gratitude, and continue to do your best in your relationship with that person both because you want to and because they’re just as important to you. Sometimes you don’t think that you deserve the gift, let alone the human, or you worry that you aren’t as thoughtful in return. You have to remind yourself that you are. And you have to savor every moment with as much gratitude and intention as possible.
That's what every moment is like.
So you ask, what does it feel like when your best friend has cancer?
I realized she scooped me into her personal philosophy since day one and neither of us even knew it. It feels like making, living, daring, and most of all loving.
That’s what it feels like.