Yesterday I visited my friend Judy at her home in East Sacramento. She greeted me at the door in a fuzzy winter hat. Her hair stuck out at odd angles from underneath it, and she immediately put her hand to her head.
“I haven’t been able to wash my hair,” she said apologetically, though it didn’t matter to me. I was just happy to see her walking and talking. “Twelve days.”
Twelve days since a team of doctors made a sausage-shaped incision on the right side of her skull to try to remove a cancerous brain tumor. Twelve days and she’s walking and talking—not perfectly normally—but she’s up and moving.
For four-and-a-half years my friend Judy has battled metasasized breast cancer. It’s migrated everywhere—to her liver and bones and now her brain—and yet she’s still in the game, pitching and catching. She may not run the bases at top speed, but she gets around. I tell her she’s the poster girl for metasasized breast cancer.
She told me, right after her diagnosis, when I ran into her at our local post office one breezy summer day, that she was hoping for a miracle. By my count, she’s had at least a dozen.
She lived to see her 65th birthday and had a doozy of a party. She’s pursued a variety of treatment methods—both Western and alternative medicine—and some combination of those two has kept her alive all these years.
That and sheer grit. Faith, too. She has a lot of that.
Cancer has been her full-time job, and she’s gotten good at it. I sit with Judy every three weeks in the Kaiser chemo suite when she gets a dose of a drug to try to halt the progression of her tumors. We talk and laugh and have way more fun than is probably typical in the chemo suite. But I have seen her decline over the past three months. She forgets things much more easily. She’s had weakness on her right side. The tumors are on the move. She’s in a last ditch fight for her life.
This morning, I made tea and carried the teapot to the living room where we drank from heart-shaped cups on heart-shaped saucers. We drink a lot of tea together—mostly peppermint, her favorite. Judy took off her cap so I could see her incision. The stitches had just been removed, and I was mighty impressed. The wound is pink and healing nicely—not puffy, not infected. Her doctor, I teased her, is an amazing seamstress.
She beamed. “I know. She’s so nice. I really like her. I trust her. She said she’d try to retain function on my right side, and she did pretty well.”
Judy’s right side is still weak, but she gripped my hand with the thumb and two fingers of the right hand in a powerful grip. “I can’t feel my last two fingers,” she said, and they are floppy.
But she is not giving up. She and her sweetheart, Walt, have been through so much during this long journey. She is grateful for his love and assistance, as she is for her son Eddie’s help, too. After we drank our tea, Judy needed to lie on the sofa to talk. So I sat in a chair, cradling my teacup in my strong right hand, watching her rest. I have sat with people in the last stages of long illness before. I know what this looks like.
But this woman’s not done fighting. She doesn’t want the radiation doctors are suggesting. “That would cause dementia,” she said, her dander rising. “I’m not gonna let that happen.”
She was concerned that she can no longer dye her hair the bright red it has been, she says, for fifty years. I confided that my new year’s resolution is not to color mine anymore either. It’s an odd combination of brown/mousy gray, as one of my grandmothers used to say. It is not particularly pretty, but it’s mine, and I am grateful for it.
“We’ll be as we are together then,” I said.
Judy smiled, stretched her right hand out to squeeze mine with three powerful digits.. “We’ll be as we are,” she repeated.
Which is all we can be, isn’t it?