Originally published March 23, 2007
It's one of those of driving off a cliff moments. It's a statement you never expect so you never plan. Birth, marriage and even death carry stock responses stored in the brain for years in expectation they will one day be used. But even the most careful planner spends no time pondering what to say when a loved one tells you they have cancer.
It can come in the morning. It can come in the middle of the day. It can come at night. With no doubt, it will come when you are performing some mundane task which will suddenly have no significance. It can even come as you search for a particular restaurant that will satisfy a sudden craving for a particular type of pizza. Suddenly, the phone rings and you are hit with the most unexpected of utterances. Do you say good luck? Do you ask what you can do? Do you tamp down the sudden dread in order to say everything will be okay? If you are driving, do you pull to the side of the road? Do you stay strong because the person needs the support or do you simply begin to sob? As the surface areas of the brain struggle for the appropriate reaction, deep within, the internal voice whispers that no matter what you say, life has changed irrevocably.
Thoughts of a certain need for a specific type of pizza are immediately deleted from the queue and the most basic portions of the lizard brain sieze control of the body forcing it to attend to the need for sustenanace and nothing more. You find yourself robotically pulling into a drive through to order a pre-packaged meal of questionable value but infinite ease. The body knows food is a necessity but at this particular moment no longer a luxury to enjoy. It may have the taste of the cardboard of its packaging but it moves the body forward while the brain catches up.
Eventually, most people come around to one universal response. I'll be there as soon as I can.
Despite the cameras, the press gaggle, the harsh lights, the sputteringly inconsistent microphones, despite the differences in station of life, I was there with John and Elizabeth Edwards yesterday as they announced her cancer has returned. It is not hard for me to imagine the previous 24 hours. People often morbidly joke about the stages of grief but few understand cancer is the grief that arrives too early. There is despair. There is hope. There is the clinical analysis. There is the need to know exactly what is happening. There is the need to know exactly what is going to happen. Each on their own find the small corner of mind containing the mechanism of self-defense that allows the life to go on even when life seems impossible.
In the end all find hope. Even if it is the smallest whisper, we all put on the "brave face" and move forward. We face our family. We face our friends. In the case of public figures, we face the unwavering stare of the press.
I do not pray, but I do believe all souls are connected in ways we may never understand. Time and space hold no bounds to the power of human need.
I was not in Chapel Hill yesterday, but I was with John and Elizabeth Edwards.