What We Learned From Each Other

-- The Dallas Morning News Viewpoints page, July 28, 2002:


Who knows why you become close friends with another person? Is it chemistry? Are you drawn together by your differences or your commonalities, your strengths or your weaknesses?

You don't know. What you do know, though, is something about yourself and your own expectations about life. You are the kind of person who has always known life is not fair. Maybe you were born knowing it or you learned it at an early age, but you can never remember not knowing it.

If life were fair, then your close friend would not be dying at the age of 44. In fact, if anyone deserves to live, it would be Martha Hale. She is smart, funny, warm, talented and charismatic, deeply loved by her family and friends. She is full of life and hope. You never realize how much hope has defined her and guided her life till she finally loses it.

Martha has lived with metastatic breast cancer for more than three years. She has endured so many treatments that you and her other friends have lost count - repeated surgeries, chemotherapy regimens, radiation to her neck, brain and chest, steroids to control the radiation's and chemotherapy's side effects, drugs to control the steroids' side effects, scans, X-rays, blood tests, doctors' visits, hospitalizations.

But she does so much more than endure. She lives as fully and joyously as she can. Throughout the past three years, no one who did not know her would have ever thought she was sick. When her hair grows back, she colors it a dazzling blond. Her face thins and her cheekbones emerge and she looks beautiful.

At the long lunches you have together, she talks and laughs. She wants to hear your stories and your friends' stories - all those silly, everyday problems and dilemmas the rest of you have. She talks very rarely about what she is going through. She doesn't want to be a poster child for breast cancer, someone to be pitied. She is simply doing what she has to do to live.

But slowly, the treatments begin to wear out and fail her. When she is hospitalized for the last time, her room is on the seventh floor. As the elevator doors open, you can turn to the left and go to the maternity ward or to the right, to the oncology ward. You can always tell which direction the other elevator-riders will turn in; it is that clear, that easy.

You turn right, of course, since you are the close friend of someone who is beginning to die of cancer. You know which direction to turn and which room number to seek. You don't know much more than that - what you should do or what you should say.

Martha has lived so brilliantly, so stubbornly and optimistically. Now she has to learn to die. She knows this, but she refuses to believe it. It is wrong, it is unfair, and she is furious about it. She has a genius for life, not death.

She comes home. Her husband, Phil, nurses her tirelessly and devotedly. Her parents, Nancy and Mac, come to stay and help. Her close friends, like you, come and go. You bring her favorite pistachio cookies from the restaurant you used to go to for your long lunches. You know you will never go there with her again. Your lives and your immediate futures have now diverged: Martha's task is to die, and yours and her family's and friends' is to help her.

"Just think," her good friend, Diane, tells you. "We have to let Martha go - and it's so hard. But think of what she has to do. She has to let go of all of us - of her whole world and everything she loves."

You know that's true. What Martha must do is infinitely harder than what you must do. In fact, you have so little to do and yet you are doing it so badly. Martha is angry about dying and sometimes she seems angry at you. You are angry at her for being angry - so what kind of friend are you? Would a good friend want to scream, "You have to learn to let go"? Wouldn't a good friend understand that the qualities that helped her live so well - the tenacity, the dogged optimism, the grit - are making it harder for her to die?

But why is it so difficult for her to understand that yes, life is not fair? Why can't she understand the one thing you have always understood?

One day, you notice the anger has drained from her as completely as her hope. Her eyes are deep-shadowed and peaceful. She will die and, for the moment, you will live. Originally, this seemed to be a betrayal. Now, it is a simple fact.

The betrayal is not to go on living without your dear friend, Martha. You understand that, finally. The betrayal would be not to live as well as you possibly can. She taught you that with her own life - with the long, funny lunches, the exuberant conversations, those wild snorts of laughter and grief.

Who would have thought that you, the slow learner about life's joys and pleasures, could have been taught so much by your friend? All that time, all those riotous hours, you could have sworn you were only having fun.

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