Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mysterious Ways

The Bible tells us that God moves in mysterious ways.

And it is not given to us humans, I have often been told, to understand those ways. We are asked to accept them — even when the logical and rational mind practically screams out, "Why?"

If you read this blog yesterday, you know that a dear friend of mine died a couple of days ago — but I didn't find out about it until yesterday. And I have been trying to make sense of it.

I guess it takes me a couple of days of putting my thoughts down — I used to do it on paper, now it's mostly on the computer screen — before I can adjust to this kind of news. My friend's name, in case you didn't read my earlier entry, was Phyllis, and she had colon cancer.

But that may not have been the cause of her death.

I've had several friends now who have died of cancer. In fact, today is the anniversary of one of those deaths. As a result, I guess you could say I never really feel that, once someone has been diagnosed with cancer, he or she is ever truly cancer–free. Some of my friends thought that they were cancer–free, only to learn their cancer had returned.

But I never say anything about that to a friend who has cancer, though. And I always hope for the best. I rejoice with my friends if they tell me that their doctors have told them they are in remission. And, in some cases, I suppose, some people I know have been cured — not temporarily but in the truest sense of the word.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, after all, was diagnosed with colon cancer a decade ago. Last year she was treated for pancreatic cancer. But she's still around at the age of 77. I don't know if that means she has permanently beaten her cancer. But she has survived.

So there are exceptions. And I try to remember that. But I guess I've been conditioned since early in my life to regard a cancer diagnosis as a death sentence — one that may be carried out shortly or after a long, drawn–out, roller–coaster ride (both mentally and physically), but one that is, ultimately, unavoidable.

Many strides have been made in the treatment of cancer since I was a little boy. Some types of cancer have been conquered. And survival rates are, at least, better for other types of cancer than they were. So the mere mention of the word cancer in a diagnosis does not automatically mean there is no hope — as it once did.

Now, as I said yesterday, I don't know the details of Phyllis' death. At the time she went in to the hospital, I really believed she was being treated for pneumonia. And perhaps she was.

I'm not a doctor, but I figured the diagnosis of pneumonia might have complicated her cancer treatment. And that made sense to me. Maybe I misunderstood. Or perhaps Phyllis chose not to fill in all the blanks.

I can't honestly say what my rationale was. I just didn't feel her pneumonia was a threat to her life.

And that is, I guess, why I felt such a sense of shock when I heard about Phyllis' death. Maybe that's why I have felt so blindsided by this news. Perhaps if I had been there and I had been able to see her with my own two eyes, I would have seen that my friend was dying.

And I would have felt better prepared for it when it came to pass.

But there was too much physical distance between us.

Phyllis was living in our hometown of Conway, Ark., at the time of her death — although I know she lived in other places after we graduated from high school together — and I have been living in Dallas for the last 14 years. I really couldn't tell you the last time we actually saw each other, the last time we heard each other's voices, the last time we hugged. We reconnected on Facebook last year and "chatted" there from time to time.

And it was through Facebook in the last couple of months that I picked up tidbits of news — that Phyllis had been in intensive care, that she had been removed from intensive care. But I heard nothing more substantial than that until yesterday.

I gather, from what I have picked up since, that it was primarily pneumonia that ended her life. Perhaps a doctor would tell you that it was the pneumonia and the cancer combined that finished her off. I'm certainly no doctor, but I know that, even though pneumonia doesn't usually kill people in our age group, a compromised system is more vulnerable to opportunistic diseases.

So, perhaps her cancer played an indirect role. Or perhaps pneumonia was the sole cause of death. It doesn't really matter. I don't need to see the death certificate.

All I need to know is that my friend is dead — and our mutual friends and I are grieving.

It is, as I say, a place I've been before. It isn't one I have been eager to revisit.

This is eerily reminiscent — 19 years ago, when I was in north Texas, finishing my work on my master's degree, another old friend from my Arkansas days was diagnosed with cancer in the spring. He declined rapidly, then died on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1991. A mutual friend called me that night with the news and told me his parents wanted me to be a pallbearer at the funeral in Pine Bluff that Saturday.

So I did what I had to do to get ready to drive to Little Rock after work on Friday. I would stay overnight with a friend who also was going to be a pallbearer, then we would drive to Pine Bluff for the funeral the next day.

It was a busy time for me, and the distraction was welcome. Without it, I would have spent every waking moment thinking about my friend. But, even so, I always felt that I was right on the edge of breaking down — except for a few minutes that Friday night, when I was driving along the highway that cuts through southwestern Arkansas sometime after sundown.

There wasn't much traffic, stars filled the sky and temperatures were dropping. I rolled down my window a little and switched on the radio. Immediately, I heard the Eagles singing a song I seldom heard before and even more rarely since, "My Man."

It seemed as if Mike was talking to me through the song:
"My man's got it made
He's gone far beyond the pain
And we who must remain
Go on living just the same
We who must remain
Go on laughing just the same."

Here I am, 19 years later, and another friend has gone far beyond the pain. And I am reminded how desperately I want to hope.

I hope the song speaks the truth. I hope Phyllis does have it made now. I hope there really is an afterlife because, if there is, I have no doubt that she is reaping her rewards for the life she lived here on earth. (I may have my doubts from time to time about whether an afterlife exists, but I have no doubt that, if it does, certain people I have known in my life are there.)

Many of those "who must remain" will be gathering in my hometown a week from Monday to remember Phyllis and celebrate her life. I wish I could be there. But I can't help feeling that, even though I can't be there, Phyllis' spirit is working some of her special magic.

And it makes me hopeful that an afterlife really does exist.

In the aftermath of her death, I have reconnected in Facebook with a mutual friend from my high school years, also named David, who is living in this area. He'll be in my hometown in the days leading up to Phyllis' memorial, working on the arrangements, then I will be starting my new job the next week, but we've agreed to get together and have a couple of Cokes about three weeks from now.

It's been a long time since we've seen each other — and, David, if you're reading this, I must warn you that my hair isn't brown anymore! — so we'll probably spend some time getting caught up. And we'll certainly reminisce about Phyllis.

It may be a good thing that some time will pass before we get together. If we were getting together today, I'm sure there would be many tears from both of us.

Three weeks probably won't be enough time to completely drain those tear ducts, though, and we were two of many who loved Phyllis so I'm sure there will be moments when one of us will say something that moves the other to tears.

That's a healthy part of the grieving process, I guess, and, if one believes in the afterlife, which Phyllis clearly did, it will be helpful to believe that she has gone beyond her pain and that now, she's got it made.

And we who must remain will go on living and laughing, even when it means laughing through the tears, because Phyllis brought a lot of laughter into all our lives. We will miss that and we will miss her.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to listen to "My Man."

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