“Ms. Bowler is an unfortunate 35 yo F w/ newly diagnosed colon cancer, likely metastatic.”
“Ms. Bowler became emotional when discussing the implications of her cancer diagnosis for her son. She stated that she had a good support system among family and friends. Ms. Bowler maintained a sense of humor during the appointment.”
Doctor’s Notes, September 2015
I called my mom before the surgery, one year ago today.
“Rick told me the secret,” I said. But the more my mom pressed for details, the more it was obvious that I was on a lot of exciting pain killers. And that I had forgotten the secret entirely. My mom said it took me weeks to remember.
Rick had come to see me. He sat down beside my hospital bed and took my hand in his. “I wore this clerical collar to impress you,” he said gravely. “And to get through hospital security.”
Rick is probably my oldest friend. I mean, he is literally the oldest person that I sit down with and pour out all my diary feelings. He is not going to like this rendering of him, but he is one of the greatest people I know and he did, in fact, know the secret.
I had been trying to keep it together until that moment. I had already called my best friend to tell her what she must say to my family if things went another way: You were perfect. Kate could not have been a more loved daughter, a more loved sister. I had already told my sister-in-law in no uncertain terms that she would be the one to help Toban move on with things and to find happiness in every way. I had tried to put things in order and sew them up. I had saved all my questions.
“Will I ever go on a trip again?” I asked him as he sat down. My world had gotten very small. This room. That surgery. No one could tell me when I would be able to see my son. Cancer had eaten up all the space and gobbled up all my time.
“Oh, of course you will,” he said and I believed him. I believed him because he had lost his boy at my age and he knew what it was to count costs and count time.
There was a lot of silence as I struggled for the language to ask my next question.
“Do you think when we die that we won’t be so…apart? That maybe because God sees things in a single moment that it might be the same for us?”
He knew what I was asking because he always knows. Will I miss everything? Will I see my son sprout up and learn the rules of Canadian football? Can I see him graduate and be launched into the world? How many times can I sit beside his bed and watch his eyes squeeze tight as we thank God for tractors and the sticks we throw into the stream near our house. These are the plans I have made. These are the hopes that are being ground into dust.
“Don’t skip to the end,” he said, gently. “Don’t skip to the end.”
“What do you think I meant by that?” Rick says to me last week, sitting in my office. He can’t remember saying it because it was such a blur. We are marveling at a whole year gone by, a whole year that the doctors said I had a 30% chance of surviving.
“I think you meant that we just can’t know. And that our brains fill in all the details, for good or for ill. We want to tell ourselves a story—any story—so we can get back to certainty,” I reply, “You know me! I am so desperate to know what’s going to happen. At least so I can prepare.”
“I sound really deep,” he says.
“You ARE really deep,” I shoot back, laughing. “But Rick, I just need to make it to 50. I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”
“But it comes undone. There are so many times in life when we think we have it locked down,” he says. We are quiet again.
Plans are made. Plans come apart. New delights or tragedies pop up in their place. And nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life that has been more painful than I could have imagined. More beautiful than I could have imagined.
“Right. It’s the secret—don’t skip to the end,” I remind myself, sheepishly wiping my face on the sleeve of my sweater.