I’m going to be contributing to my friend Frank’s blog, Still Kicking as he documents his journey with cancer. I’ll be cross posting here, and some posts may feel narratively disjointed because it’s a response to Frank’s story. So I encourage you to visit Frank’s blog for the full picture.
Frank had a morning appointment at UCSF to meet with his oncologist. I hadn’t heard from him so I assumed he had found street parking and and didn’t need to take me up on my standing offer of validated parking in my office building around the corner from the UCSF Cancer Center. At this appointment he was to get the results of a bone scan he had done two days earlier to check whether or not the aggressive cancer in his prostate had spread. I had asked him the night before to shoot me a quick text when he was done with his appointment to let me know how it went.
I expected to hear from him around noon, so when I didn’t I kept my iPhone on me as I went about my work day. During one particularly boring meeting, my boss had to nudge me to make me stop fidgeting with my iPhone as I was unconsciously trying to coax it to give me some good news from Frank. But, due to some uniquely modern problems (he had run out of minutes on his cell phone plan, and my texting had been shut-off due to a billing snafu with AT&T), we didn’t connect until the next day when I called him the old-fashioned way – land-line to land-line.
I could tell as soon as he picked up the phone that something was up. Usually Frank answers the phone with a cheery “hello?” But that day he sounded drawn, wrung out. He cut to the chase quickly. “It’s the worst possible scenario – stage IV metastatic bone cancer.” I was stunned into silence. “Needless to say, I’m devastated” he continued.
As soon as I could find my voice again, I said quietly, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, sweetie. Is there anything I can do to help?” It’s a question I’ve since asked too many times.
Our conversation was brief, as his other phone was ringing with someone he had made an appointment to give the news to. I ended the conversation with the words “I love you” – words I’m normally stingy with, but I meant with all of my heart.
Over the next week or so, in various phone calls and emails, Frank freely shares with me his emotions in coming to terms with the diagnosis, and the agony of having to wait until all the testing is finished before a treatment plan can be formulated. Whenever Frank seems strong, steady, I’m happy. But, when he’s having a hard day, my own fear and discomfort come to the fore again. And with that discomfort comes that question, “how can I help you?”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the impulse to help. It’s one of the human race’s best qualities. It’s our Buddha nature shining through our normal fog of self-involvement. But, for the me the words “how can I help you?” were almost becoming a mantra. Every time Frank seemed in distress, I would recite my mantra, “how can I help you?” Finally, the meaning behind the mantra became clearer to me: I was desperately looking for some way to not feel helpless. Here is my dear, dear friend who has been given a dire diagnosis and there is little I can do to assuage his fear or keep him free from suffering. Sure, perhaps I can give him some comfort, or a few hours diversion, but I can’t take away his pain. I can’t change the course of his journey, no matter how much I want to. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.
With each phone call or contact, I found myself relying on my mantra, “how can I help you?” Finally one evening it dawned upon me that this relentless desire to help went beyond feeling helpless about Frank’s situation. I desperately wanted something to keep me busy so I wouldn’t have to think about my own inevitable march towards aging (if I’m lucky), sickness and death.
While I’ve had both pets and parents die, I haven’t had any close friends die. Sure, I’ve gotten that twinge of mortality when I get news of the passing of some old high school friend. But, it’s not supposed to happen to someone so strong, so healthy, so full of life as my friend Frank. And if cancer can strike this healthy, vital river guide, what are my chances of making it out alive? Oh. Right. None of us do. I’m no exception. Shit.
The weekend after Frank got the bone cancer diagnosis, our friend Rae and I went to a weekend of teachings by Ani Pema Chodron here in Richmond. She is an incredible woman – funny, wise, earthy and a bottomless well of compassion. I think what most impressed me was the way she listened to people during the Q&A sessions. At times it felt like I was at a Buddhist version of Lourdes. People brought such immense suffering and laid it at the feet of Pema. And she was fully present for it. She never cringed, never wavered. She stood there and took it in and never looked away.
I think I have figured out my role in all of this, what I can do to help. I’m going to take my cue from Ani Pema and simply be present for whatever happens. That image of her, standing still and strong, taking in the suffering of others and reflecting back love and compassion is imprinted on my mind, and will continue to be source of inspiration.
So, that will be how I will help – simply to stay fully present and just love Frank unconditionally. Oh, and provide free parking.