That was the text message I sent to a friend. She does the same kind of work as I do, and I shared my story with her right after it happened, when I was still not sure what to think.
(Warning: there’s a semi-graphic description of some nasty treatment side effects following. There is also some cussing. Stop right here if you’re easily disturbed by that kind of thing.)
Let me tell you about it. My client has an advanced stage of cancer-*. She has tried many treatments, which have exhausted her body, mind and bank account. She is undergoing a treatment now that causes extremely painful lesions on her skin. The ones I can see look like giant spider bites, but she tells me about others which are open and sometimes weeping. She takes multiple medications to manage her pain. She tells me that as a result she is “much more mellow than usual.”
She describes herself as a “hard-driving” person, and talks about raising the money to go abroad for alternative treatment. She says to me: “If I can’t afford to go abroad, I don’t know what I’ll do. Just die, I guess.”
That day she wanted me to take a picture of a particularly large lesion on her chest so she could send it to her doctor. She sat on the edge of the table and gingerly pulled away the gauze pad which was covering the wound. I took a couple of quick pictures, then noticed the wound was weeping a bit, so she quickly covered it up and buttoned her shirt.
She wanted to see the pictures before she left. I hand her the smart phone with the last picture on display. She looked at it then started laughing maniacally. “Wow,” she said through continuing laughter, “that’s really horrible.”
And it is. Really horrible. It is also really horrible that despite marijuana, morphine, and massage therapy, she is in constant pain that sometimes takes her breath away. And it’s horrible that she may not have access to the treatment she wants because it has been so expensive to keep her alive this long. There is so much horrible here that it is tempting to just drown in it.
But she laughed. She chose to laugh. Not the kind of laugh that makes you wonder if someone is really “all there,” but a deeply knowing laugh. The kind of laugh that knows and embraces all that is painful and dark about her human experience. It was a “Fuck you, I will go on” laugh.
And, I will admit it, I found it disturbing at first. Then I didn’t know what to think, so I texted my friend and colleague. Her response was perfect: “I love this while my heart breaks.”
I love this. My heart breaks. This is the circle I step into, as soon as I leave work for the day. Fortunately, love and breath and understanding friends win out, and I am ready every day to come back.
*- name and identifying details have been changed