As of Saturday, June 30th, I have been in remission for five years. This is a huge milestone and I’m very fortunate to have the chance to mark it.
But I really didn’t feel like celebrating.
Just a couple of days before, my beautiful friend Orit passed away, leaving three young kids, a loving spouse and a large group of family and friends in deep mourning. I spoke to her husband Sean early on the day she died and afterwards posted on Facebook what was for me an unusually vague status update:
“Warning: This would not be a good day to tell me that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes wrong stuff just happens. And sometimes life is terribly unfair.”
So much about cancer is a crap shoot. Some get cancer, some don’t. Some walk away, others live with the illness forever. Some live for a long time and some die way before they are ready to go.
Orit had strength and determination and a great love for her family and community. She had access to the best health care and, prior to being diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, was healthy and fit. She never stopped fighting to live and she most definitely did not lose a battle.
Despite the fact that we lived in the same neighbourhood, I met Orit less than a year ago, not long after her cancer diagnosis. Our illness brought us together but we soon found that we had so much more than than cancer in common. We both found humour in the world around us, sought to nurture our creative selves and wore our hearts on our sleeves when it came to those around us. I had the privilege of watching her face light up when her husband got home and the clear eyed love she had for each of her kids. We had the chance to talk about being in cross-cultural relationships and about the values we hoped to share with our kids. We talked about petty grievances and big ideas. And we shared our fears, hopes, sorrow and anger at facing the scourge that is cancer.
One evening, as we were yarn bombing our local community centre, Orit and I sat on the pavement sewing a 6 foot tube of yarn onto a bike rack. As we took turns holding the piece in place and passing the needle, she suddenly said. “I really wish that we had the chance to know each other before. We would have been such good friends.”
I felt my heart break as I struggled to find an appropriate and truthful answer. But I knew it would be wrong to say “We will get to be friends for a long time” or even “It’s going to be OK.” Instead, I said swallowing the lump in my throat, “I agree. I wish I’d met you sooner as well.”
The last time I saw Orit, we had tea on her front porch while she knit. She had been in the hospital the night before because of unmanageable pain. That morning she seemed fine, if weak. She talked about convincing her oncologist to try one last course of treatment and her profound grief at the thought of leaving her children. We both cried.
And then I left for a yoga class, borrowing a t-shirt before I left. It didn’t occur to me that I would not see her again.
A few days later, she was hospitalized. And a few days after that, she died.
I wish I had told her how amazing I thought she was. That I thought she was a great mother, an interesting person and inspiring in a way that transcended her illness. I wish I’d said how beautiful she was.
I’ve struggled for two weeks to write this blog post. Orit’s family have been so kind, loving and generous to me but I can’t help thinking how grossly unfairly life has treated them.
Which is why I haven’t felt like celebrating.
I am very lucky to be alive and I hope to be around writing blog posts in another 5 years. None of us knows when our time will come. We need to live bravely, love fiercely and hold on to the things that matter. We need to tell those we care for how much they mean to us and to do those things we always wanted to do. No matter how long we have on this earth, we need to truly live.
I, for one, plan on doing a little more yarn bombing. I have Orit’s last piece of knitting so a little bit of her will be there as well.
Care to join us?