“Will you come back?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
And I meant to, but I waited too long, and then she was gone. It was only a week, maybe ten days after I visited her. I hadn’t seen my friend Debbi for a few years. She lived in Iowa, and I was in Chicago. But we kept in touch by email and sometimes Skype, and then came the Caring Bridge.
Debbi was diagnosed with cancer in May of 2015. I got an email sent to a group of our friends asking for prayer. Her tone was familiar—scrappy and yet fluidly faithful and optimistic. She quoted verses from the Psalms, referenced her work at the church camp, said something funny. Maybe it’s not too serious, I thought.
My boys are chasing the dog around the house. I hear the sounds of barking and laughing and heavy footsteps, clicking dog nails and then a crash. “Don’t worry!” they yell to me, “It’s okay!” so I stay in my chair, and I try to sift these bulky words onto the page. I am distracted. Time is measured in life’s interruptions.
It’s all so serious now. What has changed? I used to write things that were funny and a little bit ironic; now I’m so serious. When I sit down to put thoughts into words, I just feel as though I’m reaching my arms into a vat of viscous resin. Is it because I’m getting older that everything has such weight to it?
Some weeks there were no updates on the Caring Bridge, no good news, no bad news. It’s distressing how quickly daily life stuff fills in the gap. There are no empty places. In the absence of news, I fixed the toilet, helped children with homework, got my oil changed, wrote a poem, skipped the gym, watched too much television.
And then the update would come and bring my friend and her cancer to mind. So many of us, when talking about it, would say, “Debbi is battling cancer,” or “she’s really fighting this,” but it never felt right. She was strong, yes, like a fighter—but more like a mother, more like a saint.
I forgot to pay the American Express bill. I remember this while writing, while struggling to find the words for this. So, I stop the struggle and pay the bill. It’s easy. It’s online. It only takes a moment. I worry that my momentum is now gone. The forward movement of the piece is stalled. It’s not because of the bill paying. I know that.
There were surgeries and then chemo. She lost her hair, wore ball caps and scarves. She embodied grace and mercy in an awful process, and then things were looking up. The updates were all hope, and gratitude, and sighs of relief, mixed with fingers still crossed, and prayers still whispered.
But I don’t have to tell you that sometimes cancer pretends to go away, but instead it is hiding out somewhere, ducking scans and blood tests. Then a short time later it jumps out from behind the half-open door, perhaps just when you think it was okay to stop looking. Within a few months, the cancer did jump out from its hiding place. It was like the cancer was running downhill and we were all trying to keep up or maybe get a little ahead. It was only a year since her diagnosis, but now, my friend was moving quickly toward hospice.
“The battle is the Lord’s.” Debbi told me this when I finally saw her in person. I had no idea as we sat and talked that day that it would only be a week or so before she died. She scoffed, something I was not used to seeing from her, “I hate that people say it’s a battle. I’m not fighting a battle with cancer. I’m dying.” I nodded my head, and she looked at me pointedly, “because if it’s a battle, what does that mean when I die? Is dying really losing?” I did not know what to say in that moment.
There must be a better way to talk about death and dying, better words to say than, “She lost her battle with cancer.” And I keep trying to find them, there in the sticky vat of resin and regret. I wish I could tell Debbi now, in answer to her question about losing, that I suspect she was right. She has not lost. The battle is the Lord’s. Still, those of us who are left here in the wake of her dying feel true loss. The loss is there for good reason. We feel the loss because we care that this person has left us.
Perhaps the battle, then, is ours. We are fighting for life here. The grief we feel, that wrenching in the heart, that’s merely a messenger. Grief is like that, showing us where we are empty.
If there is a battle, it cannot be diminished by the specter of death. It simply brings us some perspective we may have been missing. If there is indeed a battle that is ours, it is a race to find meaning and purpose. The battle is an attempt to leave a legacy of love and care, a caring bridge and it spans the life we led, the life we leave and the people who will need to continue the long walk ahead. The battle rages as the clock ticks, the days fly by too fast, people leave us too soon, leaving empty spaces where their laughter ought to be.
For Debbi, time is now eternal, no longer measured by deadlines and appointments and bills paying, by height and weight charts, by car registration renewals, by election cycles or writing deadlines. We have lost her to whatever comes after this life.
We are sitting here with the grief that shows us the reality that she is gone. But we’re fortunate too because she built a caring bridge—strong and sturdy, and it guides us forward, across the deep gulch of loss, so that we can keep going forward. That’s the battle she fought—and she has won.
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Jessica Yuan's poem "Fluorescent" appears in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
It took years to arrive and your eyes
became accustomed to light at all hours,