This one goes out to all the BFF’s. The girlfriends from way back. The sorority sisters. The confidants. The first call after the first date. The wardrobe consultant before the big interview. The first to toast the big award. The pick-up-the-phone-no-matter-what-and-start-the-conversation-exactly-where-you-left-off kind of friends. We’re the Best Friends.
And then there’s brain cancer.
We’re not the patient. We’re not the caregivers. We’re not quite on the sidelines, but we’re not in the inner circle either. Ours is always a story of friendship.
Like everyone who has been a guest on this blog, I can tell you exactly where I was when I got the news that my best friend’s husband had just been diagnosed with a Glioblastoma. I already knew something about brain cancer because a family member had died from it, and I had a co-worker down the hall who had shaved his head in solidarity with his recently diagnosed best friend. I didn’t need the person on the other end of the phone to remind me “it’s the bad kind,” I already knew. Only six months earlier, I had flown from Seattle to Anchorage to celebrate Karen and John’s wedding. We had a great time that day. I couldn’t even imagine how things could take such a horrible bend.
What do I wish I would have known before my best friend’s husband was diagnosed with brain cancer? What not to say.
“Just let me know what I can do to help.”
I wish I would have never uttered those totally useless words; much less used them in Every. Single. Conversation. I put Karen on point for finding me something to do; mostly so I could feel better. This turned out to be a really hollow gesture; a well intended one…but one that was never going to be cashed-in. Over the 15 months of John’s cancer, Karen always politely declined my lame offer. Then, on a particularly bad day, I said those dreadful words and Karen gave the most honest response, “Cure him! Do you have a cure? Because if you don’t, there’s nothing I need.” Believe me, I would have done anything to give John a cure, but instead all I could do was secretly vow to never, ever say those words again.
So here’s how I re-live it in my mind: Instead of saying those stupid words, I would have said, “I love you, and I’m sorry you’re going through this.” I’ve since stayed true to my silent vow. Sadly, it turned out Karen wouldn’t be my only friend dealing with brain cancer. Now I know to just call and say, “I’m headed past your place later today, would you mind if I dropped off something for dinner?”
“How ya doing?”
I’m pretty sure I never thought twice about it because we all say it all day long, and we never really expect an honest answer. I bet I say it 30 times a day at work, “How ya doing…fine. Say…I need your expense report by noon.” It’s a rhetorical question: fine or not fine, I still need the expense report. Whenever asked that question, Karen always gave a brave answer. I didn’t even realize what I had done, until my dad died. True to the Best Friend Code, Karen was the first to call me and on autopilot she said, “How ya doing?” And then without missing a beat, “Wait! Don’t answer that. You’re probably doing crappy. Don’t worry, you can tell me. You don’t have to be ‘fine’.” Yep. Another lesson learned.
Those are the type of things I regret most; the things I wish I would have said differently. I’m sure there are a few other things but those are the ones I really wish I could take back. Still, there are things that I recommend to all the Best-ies out there. These are the little things we can do in spite of stupid brain cancer.
Keep calling and writing even when we don’t know what to say. (I proved that!)
Don’t bail out because it’s uncomfortable, and the situation totally sucks.
Gossip. Come on…we’re the best friends and we’ve got the low down. I don’t care what Miss Manners might say about it, somewhere between “How ya doing?” and “Let me know what I can do?” toss in a snippet of, “You won’t believe what so-and-so did!” No one is going to forget the cancerous elephant in the room. Brain cancer gets all the air time – it is all-too real, depressing and at times it can be hopeless. A well-timed bit about the latest headline in People Magazine might be a welcomed break from recounting the situation to every single caller. Let’s face it, when there was real news about John, someone always called me…and it wasn’t Karen. Not because she suddenly didn’t want to talk to me…but because it’s all too much and best friends don’t care who made the call. They just care.
I got involved. I’m a doer. Everyone is different but in brain cancer’s Sea of Helplessness there are little islands of things we can do.
I combed the internet for a way to put a drop in the Find-a-Cure-Bucket that Karen so rightly demanded. For the longest time, I couldn’t find the brain cancer community! I honestly think that it was much smaller and harder to find 9 years ago when John was diagnosed. Two years after John slipped away, I finally found an opportunity to DO something. In the back of a local magazine I saw an announcement for the Seattle Brain Cancer Walk. I dashed off and emailed Karen with the subject line: “I FOUND IT!!!!!!!!”complete with a zillion explanation points and giant red letters. I asked if I could walk in John’s memory. Um, that was a rhetorical question too.
Two Saturdays later I took a t-shirt, grabbed a Sharpie and wrote, “Walking in Memory of JOHN NORSWORTHY”. It’s a long story, but that day made such a difference to me and Karen. I could see all the HOPE. I saw BRAVE, HUMBLE, DETERMINED patients; who, at least for the moment, are brain cancer SURVIVORS. I could see a doctor and research team really and truly MAKING A DIFFERENCE. I saw all the other Best Friends rallying. I knew first hand from John’s experience that clinical trials buy time, which, until there’s a cure, is everything.
I couldn’t contain myself after that Walk. I immediately signed-up to help organize the next Walk. Then I called Karen and started squealing, “NEXT YEAR YOU HAVE TO BE HERE!!!”So that’s how it began. Karen would go on to say that looking forward to doing the Walk together was one of the first things that gave her hope after she lost John. It was one of the first positive things to look forward too.
There are a lot of big and small ways Best Friends can get involved and help fight brain cancer. There are a lot more walks, runs and benefits around the country these days. We can “Go Gray in May” and tell our stories throughout brain cancer awareness month – and all year long. We can post on Facebook and Tweet. We can drop off groceries that no one asked for. We can just show up…but just for a minute. We can give space and just be waiting until the time is right.
When this blog posts, Karen and I will be on a girlfriend’s trip to Boston. I promise we’ll be Going Gray in May and sharing this story to those who ask about it. Then in September we’ll latch arms and walk together again in the Seattle Brain Cancer Walk. Karen will reach out to strangers and offer comfort from someone who really understands, we’ll both be inspired by the people we meet, and we’ll take the day to re-tell our favorite stories about John. We’d all do anything we could to make him be here healthy again, and I’m not naive enough to think a little walk around Seattle Center replaces a man and his life, but it helps us pick up the pieces and keep moving forward. We remember him and we try to put a little bit of good into the world. That’s what he did his entire life and it’s always seemed to me to be a great way to honor him. Then we’ll clink our glasses and start planning to do it again next year.
I do it. I know a lot of other friends who do it too.
We do it because we know it’s what our best friends would do for us.
Anner is the Chair of the Seattle Brain Cancer Walk. If you’re in town, latch arms with her and Karen on Saturday, September 20, 2014 in the shadow of the Space Needle. www.braincancerwalk.org.