In June 2009, I accepted a summer babysitting gig, for a sweet baby, just a few hours a week. The family lived in New York but had a summer home here in New England, close to where I lived. I had a really good feeling about the baby's mom, Diana, when I met her...and baby Lily was an absolute doll. I wore her on my chest in a baby carrier, and we strolled in the summer warmth and light, over the covered bridge, and on the rail trail walking path. The greenery was so lush around us. And when the sun went down, I lay the big white cloth out on the bed, swaddled sweet Lily in it the way Diana told me she liked, and rocked her in my arms.
After just a couple weeks of babysitting for Lily, I showed up one afternoon as scheduled, and knocked, and no one came to the door. I knocked and knocked, and tried calling Diana's cell phone, but she wasn't there. I waited 20 minutes, and then I went home to check my email and see if there was any message from her. And yes, she had emailed to tell me that the "flu" she'd had for a few days was more likely pneumonia, and she was in the hospital. Two days later, another email... she told me she had leukemia, and was returning home to NY for chemo. She closed with "I so enjoyed meeting you; your sunniness will stay with me as I start this journey," and I was so shocked and sad, because she had seemed so healthy and vibrant to me. I was angry that cancer was stealing her and Lily away just as we had been getting to know each other. Diana and her husband's wedding anniversary was in a little over a week and I was supposed to babysit that night so they could go out and celebrate. Instead, she was spending that time in the hospital.
Three months later, Diana emailed me again to update me, saying how she was feeling so much better now, and that despite needing a bone marrow transplant soon, she was "completely certain that [she]'ll
get on the other side of this, get a huge tattoo that says 'Survivor,' and get on with life." I wrote back with well wishes for continued healing... and a month later, had my breast lump biopsied, and was shocked to be given a cancer diagnosis of my own.
Six months passed. I frequently wondered how Diana was doing, but we hadn't emailed...and then one day, the week I started radiation, I got the strangest voice mail from her - it was just 3 minutes of her having a conversation with someone, probably her husband. It sounded to me like she had sat on her phone and called me accidentally. I could hear Lily making happy baby noises, and banging some toys together, and I smiled. I emailed Diana to tell her I'd received that probably-accidental voice mail, and asked how she was doing, and told her about my cancer. Isn't it so strange, I mused, that she and I both had cancer when we met each other and had no idea. And we were both in our 30s and so healthy!
Diana wrote back and was just as shocked and sad about my cancer as I had been about hers, but was glad to hear that I was recovering well and had such a good prognosis. "I think my prognosis is excellent too...," she said. "...at this point it's all recovery." In that email, she shared with me her thoughts about cancer, and ended with:
"I had a vision, last time I visited the doctor (at an entire hospital for cancer patients), that cancer is a certain kind of demanding spiritual path, and everyone who has it has been chosen for it. It's easy for me to see it that way now that I'm done with treatment and recovering. But it's an interesting vision.
That was a year and 8 months ago, and it was the last time I heard from her. This past week, I was thinking about her, and made a mental note to email her soon and see how she's doing now...hoping we could share stories of how well we're recovering. This morning, I woke up to an mass email from her husband, a "reminder" (although I never received the first notice) about Diana's upcoming memorial service. She died last month. I didn't know. I had been picturing her happy and healthy and enjoying time with the now-toddler Lily. Hearing of her death was such a blow....she was a vibrant and kind-hearted woman.
Diana and I signed our emails to each other with variations of "much love," even though we'd only had about 3 weeks together, because there is a kinship between those of us who have been face to face with the cancer monster. We both had undetected cancer when we met each other. We both were treated at the same hospital. We both had excellent prognoses... so why am I so healthy, and why is she DEAD? I hate cancer. Cancer is an ugly serial killer that does not discriminate... it takes down parents of little children, and little children themselves; people of all ages, all races, all professions, all parts of the world. When I was 19, cancer took away my friend Cory, a single mother in her 30s, leaving behind her 7-year-old son with autism. Cancer stole Cory when "Chicken Soup for the Survivor's Soul" was literally open on the nightstand next to her hospital bed, just like it stole Diana, a young woman with a baby daughter, who was ready to "get her 'Survivor' tattoo and move on." Cancer doesn't give a damn, it takes who it wants to, and having an excellent prognosis, and "complete certainty" that you'll fully recover, is no protection. It makes me wish that cancer was a corporeal being so I could bash its kneecaps in with a hammer.
May you rest in peace, Diana. I wish we had had more time together.