From July 1, 2020
Dear Friends --
Today marks a full orbit around the sun for Project Let's Stay Alive and Climb a Mighty Mountain. A year ago this day, a very nervous doctor I had never met before entered my hospital room and asked if we could have a chat. He unfolded one of these chairs to get more comfortable (I know! Just $24.99. And also -- who does this?) and settle in to what, truly, must be the hardest part of his job.
"Well I have some news and this will come like a kick in the shins. You have Stage IV Metastatic Colon Cancer."
Here's what I was thinking for the first three minutes: I'm sorry, but do you carry that chair around to visit all hospital rooms, or just mine? Also: how terrible that your hands are shaking.
Mainly I was fixated on the chair.
Eventually my fixation went to other places. We talked about getting my affairs in order, sort of. There were vague references to chemo, and oncology, and mostly it was about "it's a devastating diagnosis." I remembered at one point he asked if I had children.
"Yes," I said. "Two extraordinary teenagers."
"Ah," he said. "Well it's good they are a little older."
That's when it was time to get the collapsable chair out of my room, and sort out what might be next. Faithful readers know that within a matter of hours all kinds of new characters entered the stage, I laced up my metaphorical hiking books, and I departed base camp for the ascent.
Are you like me? Do you find thank you notes tricky to write? I mean there's sort of a basic construct we all follow: "Thank you for gift ABC. It was just ideal. Here's why I love it. And how are you? Oh and thank you again." But don't you yearn for a more interesting note? A note that talks about how that gift in ways the person could have never dreamed went on to change a day, a conversation, a story, even a life?
This is my attempt at one of those notes.
Here's what these 365 days have included.
My sister arrived to my hospital room within 24 hours and I'm not sure I even noticed that this must have been logistically complicated. She then knew what I probably would need most: soft clothes with high thread counts. I gave her my credit card and within two hours I was the proud owner of some of the loveliest, and softest, non-zipper apparel in the history of mountain climbs.
A dear friend (who also happens to be a thoracic surgeon) pored over my scans from his house -- did he do this on his iphone? I have no idea -- and called in the cavalry at Stanford to saddle up and get to my room, stat. Needless to say, the Captain of that Cavalry (Dr V!) never once entered my room carrying his own chair.
Another friend visited on day two. Here's what she said: "You know what? You might need a cleaning lady for the next six months or so. Just venmo'ed you a little something to get that project going." Who vacuums on chemo? Zero people.
On night three, a nurse entered my room to check on me. She was new, and not on my rotation. She didn't take my vitals, but she sat on the side of my bed. I asked her name. "I'm Rosario. I'm here to see you." "Ok," I said. "Well Rosario I'm afraid I'm in bad shape." "Yes," she said. "But do you know that you will be prayed for this year? And do you know those prayers will become miracles? These will not just sustain you. They will change you." And then she squeezed my hand, and departed. About an hour later I asked my regular nurse who Rosario was. "Rosario? We don't have a Rosario on this floor." Depending on your point of view, you're welcome to call Rosario a figment of my imagination, a random floating nurse who likes to sit on bedsides for quick chats, or an angel. I'm all in on the angel theory.
Let's talk about work colleagues. Let's talk about what it's like for colleagues to transform from professional friends into heroes. I was surrounded by these words and deeds: we'd like to draw closer, we'd like to visit, we'd like to talk, we'd like to listen, we'd like to make a little art for your bedroom for the months ahead, we'd like to talk about oncology research and what we know, we'd like give you space, we'd like to make sure you don't have too much space, we'd like you to watch this hilarious speech, we'd like you tell us what this is all like, we'd like to tidy up your office because we know you'll never get around to it, we'd like to keep things normal for you, we'd like to make sure we know nothing about this is normal. Oh and more than 20 of us would like to run the NYC marathon wearing little Foxy pins with your picture on it.
One night a friend in London texted with me at 1:00am my time because I was scared. And she sent me a song. And I was less afraid.
Many of you have taken long walks with me and let me talk nonstop for a solid hour, or more. Most of the time I barely made it to my main point. I know.
Books arrived, which is to say, your hearts.
Some sent gift cards for cosmetics. Everyone wants to be just a smidge prettier on Foxy. Smart.
One of the best photographers on the planet asked if she could take a family portrait for me and Connor and Lucy. Another angel.
Remember what Rosario said about the prayers? Millions were said, purposefully and carefully, most by people I don't know well at all. Know this: I felt each and every one. Some friends like to ask, "how have you managed this year?" "I've been prayed for, gloriously." That's how.
I have cousins I've lost track of over the years. But they found me, through cards that arrived in the mail. It was just like 1987 again.
One friend opened her Airbnb so out of town Foxy friends could visit anytime, effortlessly. Extraordinary.
I have two friends in Minnesota who thought to send me photos of the most beautiful lions, sometimes statues, sometimes the real deal, sometimes art. Aslan was on the move, throughout.
This is the part where you're beginning to wonder -- oh dear. Is she going to list 365 of these moments because this web site doesn't have a word count limit? I get it. And I thought about it.
But, in fact, the full list would diminish its grandeur. So I will conclude with this gem, the magic words that are both a thank you, and a gift for us all.
For Foxy round 12 my dear college friend, Tiffany, flew to be near. Tiffany is a nurse and knows a little something about mountain climbs. And there was this moment on the couch where we were kind of quiet, and she simply said this: "You know. You're doing this perfectly."
And I burst into tears of joy. Because, really? Was I eating the right things? Should I have been drinking more green juice goops? Should I have worked less, or more? Should I have tried to exercise more, or less? What about napping? Was that enough? Why hadn't I taken my kids to see the Sistine Chapel? Why hadn't I called my mom more? Did I share too much? Did I listen well enough to my doctors? Why am I not researching clinical trials like other patients at 2am? Have I read enough novels? Did I ask my kids enough questions today?
The list of doubt and second guessing is eternal. And in four magical words Tiffany made them all miraculously disappear.
In all my flaws and missteps and errors in judgment and sometimes managing to get it right, Tiffany gave me one of the most precious gifts of all: peace.
So. Friends. Know this: You've Loved Me Perfectly.
You have. Each and every one of these 365 days. I'm reveling in gratitude.
So let's all do this: Tell everyone climbing a mountain these magic words. You now have them in your pockets, and you can use them anytime you like. They never get old, or ordinary.
They will change a conversation, a day, a story, a life.
Here's to 365 more glorious, perfect, days.