For Josie

For Josie

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

For Josie

We are not confused—we know we are two separate people—man and wife. Yet when we met, when we married, when we had children and grandchildren, we knew. Something existed between us, beyond us, that exists as a third entity—something each individual contributed to and could draw on.

And now we have cancer, knowing that one of us must fight an internal battle and one of us will tend the supply lines, knowing that the two of us are one, each afraid— each giving courage to the other, knowing we will endure.

1965—Sir Francis Drake High School, San Anselmo, California.

Third date, basketball game at Terra Linda, the path from the parking lot to the gym blocked by a wire cable: we duck under the wire, reaching for each other’s hand to steady ourselves, knowing yet not knowing the meaning of holding hands, surprised by the electricity, delighted by the simplicity, content in the rightness of such a simple act.

And we never let go—even to arrange fingers in a more comfortable arrangement, not even to appease the dean of women and rules against public displays of affection.

We held hands to exchange rings, to deliver two children, to teach them to cross the street, to make a swing for grandchildren, as we walked—one, two, three.

2001—Swedish Medical Center, Seattle, Washington.

Pre-op: I held her hand as she lay on the gurney waiting for Dr. Dawson. When he arrived, I let go of her hand and he took it in his and walked beside her, holding it.

Post-op: The doctor told me many things. I asked questions, relieved and worried. I wrote them down, looked for hidden meanings, sifted through hopes and fears.

He explained that she would be fine, detailed the required next steps. Information swirled, yet I knew his meaning fully and understood his gentle smile when he said, “I held her hand.”

The Rapids: This turbulent river on which we travel is not of our choosing.

We were not heading in this direction when we slammed into the first rock. Cancer—malignant. It took three doctors before we could even believe we had hit a rock. By then, we were upside down, over the first falls, taking on water, spinning, gasping for breath.

When one is in a whirlpool, one cannot swim toward the surface, one cannot overcome the downward force of the water. One must swim downward with the pressure, letting the turbulence push down, out, then up. This requires presence of mind, especially when one is not sure what is up and what is down.

For the moment, we have righted the boat and are learning to paddle, know we are on the river, aware there is rough water still ahead, and there are people both on the bank and in the water to offer help and believe we will make it.

We will make this river our river.

Cancerland: We unfold the game board as one opens a fortune cookie hoping to discern the future. As much as we watch, cancer always makes the first move and catches us by surprise. We ask the experts: What are the rules? They tell of statistics, survival rates, possible outcomes, risks, but still, we must roll the dice, count out the spaces, slide into despair, climb upward in hope.

One must wait one’s turn for treatment, must wait to learn the results of tests. Blood counts fluctuate. Side effects accumulate like so much debt. Must wait years to know for sure, years of worry and dread.

As children, we played simple games. Primary colors. Rewards came quickly, defeats forgotten easily.

As parents, we taught our children games to pass the time. Taught them to follow the rules: win or lose, we could always play again.

As grandparents, we understand the rules are unknowable, that time passes of its own accord, that this game is serious, and our best may not be good enough. Yet we start each day, stubborn, ready to compete.

As children on a bright day, we would hold a magnifying glass to catch the sun’s rays, focusing the circle of light on a piece of paper into one point of intensity until the spot scorched, smoldered, flamed and burned.

Now machines focus unseen energy on those cancer cells that may have escaped the surgeon’s dissection, the chemotherapy’s poison.

Let there be light.

Let there be life.

Doug Manuel

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