As I write this, my friend Lori is laying in a hospice in Nashville, TN, dying from invasive ovarian cancer, unresponsive and asleep to the world around her. Her life will probably come to an end sometime in the next few days.
When I got the news of her sudden decline (she'd been battling cancer for the last 20 years, with many ups and downs, but was in the midst of a long "up" spell for the last few years) my first impulse was to cry. After all, Lori and I have been friends for 48 years, ever since my family moved in next to hers back in 1966. Crying is what you do when you are faced with the loss of someone who has been a fixture in your life for such a long time. We'd gone through bicycles, boyfriends, beaus and babies together. The calm and normalcy of her grandparents' house (where she lived with her brother) stood in stark contrast to how I saw mine. Lori and her life were a refuge and a role model for my future adult life.
And, to me, Lori always seemed to have led a charmed life, up until the point where, at 35 years of age, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. That, of course led to chemotherapy, radiation, multiple surgeries, and all the assorted troubles that come with those things.
While the length of her bout with cancer was truly unfair, I can't honestly say that cancer is a bad way to make your exit from this life, however. On a Facebook page remembering former students from our high school who have died over the years, far too many seem to have been taken young, and suddenly: The automobile accidents. The gang shootings. The car wrecks. The overdoses.
What I've come to realize is what cancer provides is the gift of time -- for the victim as well as their friends and family. There is, usually, time to do some of the things you still have on your "bucket list" that are important to you. Lori saw a grandchild born, traveled frequently with friends and family, and saw her youngest graduate from college just a couple of years ago.
Cancer also lets you know, approximately, how much time you probably have left in the world, which can also be a gift. You can say the things you need to, forgive those who need or want your forgiveness, and do what you feel you need to before moving on. Almost no one will be too busy for you if you're dying of terminal cancer, as they know they'd better see you now, because "later" is not a guarantee. Lori spent true quality time with many friends (including me). She lived long enough that her first grandchild will remember her, and saw her own children off into their own secure adulthoods, with jobs and happy relationships.
The last gift cancer gives is not to the one suffering, but to those around them. To know that each "I love you" could be the last, that every Christmas might be the last one you share, makes the true importance of those things apparent. In "The Prophet," Kahil Gibran says, "Love knows not its depth until the hour of separation," and he is right. But having that hour of separation stretch for a few years, with all parties aware and living in mindfulness of that fact, is in fact a gift that many who have passed suddenly would probably wish for, if they could. God knows their families would probably want it.
Lori and I said our goodbyes the last time she came to visit. We knew we would probably never see each other again, and all the good that could be said was said. I will be grateful for that until it's time for me to leave this world.
So as Lori prepares to make her greatest journey yet, I am thankful to her cancer -- not for the suffering she had to endure, but for the fact that because of it, Lori knew her time here was a finite thing, and she made the most of it, which made all of us aware that our lives are also not infinite in their scope and breadth. Her life was truly an inspiration and a reminder that few of us know just how much time as have left on the clock. Lori did, and she made it count for something.
There is not much of this life left for Lori to live now, but I hope it's filled with comfort, peace and perhaps even satisfaction, in that slow, winding-down sleep she's in now. I hope in what she knew was a limited time, she said what she needed to say and did what she wanted to do. I think she did.
Safe travels to that which comes next, my old, dear, and very loved friend.