It’s been a while since we posted any updates. I keep telling Lauren that I’ll do it, I’ll do it — and then I start thinking about Jess, and can’t write a word. So: I’ll talk about her for a little while.
She was in my med school class at U of C, and then we both matched to the same psychiatry residency. The photo above is our cohort in the spring of 2004 (Jess is second from the right in a white tank top, standing between Barb and I). She was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma in 2011, before her son Kalen turned one. I last saw her before Christmas. She died at home with her family in January of this year.
We only saw each other once every two or three months. Maybe that’s why I’m having trouble squaring her death with reality. The turnoff to her street is still there. Her texts on my phone are there. My cues to think about her are still the same – when I think about mom-and-baby relationships, for example — the area of psychiatry where she practiced. I have this whole experience of peri-Jess, but Jess herself is gone.
One of her gifts to me was to make me feel less lonely. She was six months ahead of me, in terms of cancer progression. She reached her calm hand back to me when I moved to stage III, and again to stage IV. When my oncologist called in July to tell me about the abdominal findings, I told Jess before I talked with my family. I told her before I paged Lauren at work. I knew that she could handle it: that I wouldn’t drown her by telling her.
On the flight to NY last week I watched the movie Gravity en route. Not my favourite. But there is a Venn diagram for facing a poor prognosis and floating around in space. It’s disorienting! And Jess was orienting. She was the only person in my life who could have filled that particular role and she was so generous with it.
We sat together over coffee at Cadence and were grouchy about mindfulness (a skill on constant offer to cancer patients). We didn’t want to be mindful! We were very ill-tempered about the present moment! We talked about leaving letters for our sons. We wanted them to know who we were, but we wanted them to be allowed to get on with things, too.
We put our hands on our hearts over the death of Calgary orthopaedics resident Spencer McLean – someone who neither of us had met or heard of in life, but who died of renal cell Ca in 2013. Jess had found his obituary, and we both felt less alone, reading it. He had seemed to do it so bravely: receive the diagnosis, get his Royal College exam written, say goodbye. He had so little time to make the transition. He went before us, and made us feel as though the whole thing was possible somehow.
Jess wasn’t compulsively polite. She didn’t do the thing where you run around and try to make everyone feel comfortable and important all the time. I used to think that was rather a failure on her part, until I was in her orbit and I just wanted to talk plainly about what was true, with plenty of silence as necessary.
So maybe that’s why I was so mad – irrationally mad – about some of the reply-all performances of sympathy that came in the wake of her death. I didn’t want to read about how she “was so nice.” Because: did you know her? Jess would probably never have said that you were so nice (or that I was). She didn’t value that, exactly; or talk that way. I was so grateful when people said something that felt heartfelt, or was specific somehow. I wanted the reply-all (it wasn’t the public-ness that bothered me)… I was so hungry to hear other people’s stories about her. I just wanted a three-dimensional rendering.
I know that’s a little intense. And possibly undermining. Nobody knows what the right thing is to say. I didn’t say a single thing until now, for goodness’ sake. I couldn’t think of my stories about her in time. I didn’t get it right.
I think I just want to keep Jess from being papered over with blandness. She was so singular.
Willa Cather has a story where the protagonist dies, and the last sentence reads “… and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.” I read it before I had lost anyone, and I thought (still think) it was so beautiful. That phrase has such grace and scale. But it’s hard to be graceful and universal about death like that when it’s someone close; and so young. I am reluctant to let Jess drop back in the design. Me, too, I guess.
By way of update: I’m seven months into treatment now. The abdominal metastases have changed by -83%. A “deep and dramatic response,” in Dr. Wolchok’s words. I am so bloody grateful.
There are also some unnerving things. More Nivolumab data was released this week, and the data isn’t quite as promising as everyone’s hoped. Also, I have another stripe – on my other thumbnail this time – that has appeared in the last couple of months. It’s hard to know what to make of that, in the context of the visceral mets shrinking. Maybe I should start getting manicures so I’m not staring unhelpfully at my nails all the time.
But, basically: we’re OK. Thanks for listening to me elegize my friend. She was something else. Love to all of you.