How can I help?

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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.

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6 responses »

  1. Oh man … this is a tough one. As I was reading the post I kept thinking that in the comments I’ll tell her that the only thing she can do is be present for her friend. And here, that’s the conclusion you came to, so now I don’t have to tell you. I found this out when my best friend was going through a year of full blown AIDS before his death. The only thing I could do was provide whatever assistance I could, and if that just meant being connected with a landline any time of the day or night, or driving 250 miles to cook dinner for him, then so be it. That’s what I did. Luckily both of us were not afraid to talk about death, or being sick, or being afraid, so I felt like I was there for him in every way possible. All you have to do is make sure that Frank knows that you mean you’ll be there for him when he needs any thing.

  2. Mary your words are what a lot of us have thought when this has happened to one of our dear friends. I am happy to hear that Frank has such a wonderful caring friend in you. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think anyone wants to go through this alone, and it sounds like Frank will not have to. Your blog post was comforting in a way. I guess it is nice to know people care about each other unselfishly. Mary you are a good friend.

  3. Perhaps being there, a support, is all you really can do.
    And perhaps it isn’t. I have yet to be in your shoes, and I have yet had to face the mortal sickness (or death) of someone so close to me. But I do know the feeling of helplessness when all you want to do is help someone.

    As a Guy, we generally want to just fix things. Sadly, there are times when we can’t. I generally try to steer clear of this somewhat overly used cliche, but in the end, its actually true. And sometimes, albeit in different situations, sometimes seeing someone you love and care about hurt, for any reason, cuts to the quick. And sometimes, we can’t actually fix anything.

    But I think our friends and loved ones see that in us, and being there (which may seem like a bit of a weak gesture on our parts) is all the fixing we can do. And being able to only make that gesture is what is so damned frustrating in the first place.

    But I propose this: Frank is lucky to have someone who is willing to do all they can, which sometimes feels like not enough. But I’d be willing to wager he knows exactly how you feel, and that more than makes up the difference.

  4. Thanks, guys, for your kind comments. I really appreciate it.

    One thing I failed to mention in this posting was that Frank has a very large and very loyal cadre of friends, many of whom, like me, would drop what they are doing in a moment’s notice to help him in any way possible. I guess that is why I realized my constant question of “how can I help you?” was so self-serving. Not only does he have a solid circle of support, but he is also very capable and willing to ask for what he needs.

  5. You’re right about Frank’s diagnosis making you think about your own future and mortality. I think that’s very natural. I have been there with my friends a few times.

    For me, it’s really tough to not help someone that needs it. If I find that I have a specific place and purpose in a situation, I can deal with that situation fine. It’s when I don’t know my role that I can’t handle things. I can’t just stand around. I have to do something. I have to keep busy.

    Your attendance at the event with Ani Pema Chodron couldn’t have been more timely. I think the universe looks out for us like this sometimes. You needed something and you got it. You got that image of her standing strong and taking on the pain and suffering of others. That’s what you needed to see at that time…to point you to your role in Frank’s journey.

    I think you and Frank, and all of Frank’s friends, are lucky to have each other. I know you will all be there for each other. That’s a big deal!

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