The Poetry of Friends: through the lens of a terminal cancer diagnosis

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Joy exists.

You needn’t look very far in front of your nose to find it. But you still must look in order to see. As the famous quote bandied about by, of all philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche: “he who has a ‘why’ to live can live almost any ‘how’.”

In listening to B.J. Miller a palliative physician and hospice doctor, whom most of you have heard of and if not, I encourage you to check out his videos attached to his new program mettlehealth.org. He turns the quote on its head in his video on coping with stress with a serious illness. He says, if we understand the how we can cope with the why. And that involves giving agency to the human being with the illness. The choices to search for meaning and to choose their treatments with their professionals not have answers thrown at them and expecting a patient to just accept the how as gospel. Tell me why when I ask why and I can more cope with that how you just recommended.

The beauty of that to take you to the beginning choosing to find joy in any how we can helps us to cope with he why. I cope with my why’s by the how of writing. Specifically writing poetry. It’s not an easy art. And by all intents and purposes poets can be the most adept at explaining the hows so you can get to the whys on your own. Poetry has also brought me community. Without community and with a serious and terminal illness one finds themselves cut off from all of the world they once knew. My poetry became richer and more in tune with how people can experience it as I traveled the path I am on and live another day.

Poetry can express the emotional spectrum with an economy of words. Whether you’re listening to the poet read and get the emotional intent of the words by the power of the intention in their voice or reading on your own, the words become yours to keep as a gift. The gift is not one to take lightly. Some poems you’ll connect with more than others. Some you simply won’t like because you cannot relate or you just don’t like that style. It’s no matter to the writer.

The gift of community around writing and poetry gave me an outlet to help me understand that it wasn’t mere folly, or just me screwing around with words. The words are carefully chosen and edited over and over and over again as the work of he poet begins after the initial words are put on the page – no matter what the page looks like. Paper, journal, an application on a laptop or smart device. Then we release it into the world to fly of it’s own energy. It’s an energy imbued by the mother or father of the poem. Much like having a baby, there’s a gestation and a birth. There’s more miscarriages than live births and the process is painful at times but also brings joy. A poem like a haiku or as long as a villanelle the poet chooses a structure in which to raise the poem to allow it to grow wings and fly. Thats the moment of true joy.

Where to find community in poetry?

Looking for friends after a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer becomes something of a journey in and of itself. Our paths, the only one we walk alone, converges with other walkers (or sprinters, joggers, marathoners, mountain climbers) on their paths. Each path sadly ends with death, but along the way we not only find out who we truly are but who are friends are, too.

While we become used to the sadness and isolation of losing family by the wayside of disbelief or not wanting to get too involved, and those certain friends we “just knew” would be there for us. We were wrong in some cases. Perhaps not quite as much for early stage diagnosed people, but factually for we with MBC. I’m probably wrong but I do not recall seeing very many complaints in my one person two hour friendship and early stage cancer Google research. Don’t take my word for it but thus is my truth. Your results may differ.

In my tribe

Reaching out to find my tribe wasn’t easy. Many relationships began as Twitter conversations, in closed Facebook groups, during events when we could meet in person. During those events we solidified our virtual friendships with that first real hug. Those hugs, some accompanied by tears of joy, followed by a range of emotions that usually take a lifetime to develop run hot and burn fast. We want to take in as much as possible as quickly as possible. We live in a marginalized world between life and death. No one knows when death will call the next person, but every minute of the day one of us will die. That’s 1440 of us per day with MBC alone (not counting the others in our netherworld who have different sorts of terminal cancer.)

There’s nothing in the living world that can replace the warm embrace of someone who “just knows” what we deal with, without words. Nothing need be said to describe the instantaneous love and closeness of the first time we recognize one another across a crowded hotel lobby at one of the conferences we attend. Philadelphia, Washington, San Antonio. But Covid took not only those chances to hug, it also took our friends and acquaintances lives, indefinitely extended plans to meet “as soon as we can,” and tore away the ability to get to life extending tests, clinical trials, and the healing of cancer retreats.

But poetry and writing somehow allowed me entry into a subset of people who have or support those of us who have cancer. I’ve made so many REAL friendships over the course of six years, five months, 20 days and 7 hours as of this moment in time. I lost the opportunity to know 2,890,800 (and one, two, three, etc as long as it took me to write this post. If that’s not a pandemic I’m not sure how we define one. And please explain to me why these lives don’t deserve the same rapid and global scientific response as COVID19 to a disease that kills our mothers, sisters, aunts, best friends, coworkers, lovers, partners, wives and even a few men. And us.

Dedicated to the ones I love.

In my world I’ve befriended selfless people who, for their reasons, have decided to dedicate their lives to helping those of us with metastatic breast cancer and early stage breast cancer. They are patient advocates helping our sisters and brothers with the common genetic link being disease not parents. Those who do not have cancer but may have lost someone they love to the disease or lost no one yet were somehow called to service in working at non profit organizations to help however they can.

They certainly do it for some very selfless reasons and I’ve become close with some, acquainted with others, been interviewed by podcast hosts, and printed in books by some with and some without cancer. And I’ve been lucky enough to have had this blog as a personal printing press to post my thoughts, opinions, emotions, medical issues and my poetry on demand for whomever finds me one way or another.

This blog represents another way in which we stumble into our friendships that arise from a cancer diagnosis. Each person somehow magically comes into our lives at just the right time.

The growth of friendship on the common ground of Death
Rudy’s my best cancer buddy. He checks in with me daily giving me crap and trading friendly banter, but not a single time did he make me feel anything but human. Our respective cancer diagnoses became our initial common ground but music and our marriages as well as our common cultural backgrounds and intellectual pursuits blossomed on a tree that continues to bear the fruits deep friendships grow as they are nurtured. I share things with Rudy I’d not share with anyone but about a half dozen other people all with cancer. I’m going to see Rudy and his family and go with him to a scan and await his oncology appointment with him the next day to hear those results and share the burden of scanxiety with him.

I’m meeting five women with whom I’ve managed to carve out deep and rich friendships with the first week of October. We will all stay together in one Airbnb. Flying in and out from every part of the country: California, Washington state, Virginia, Wisconsin, New York and Florida. We’ve been engaged together in a healing circle since April of 2020. Some of us knew others a little better some less. But we’ve shared deep insights into our own healing that the toes that bind us will only be severed by death. That grief stricken moment when you find out you’ve lost her. And then her…and the survivor’s guilt of why her and why not me?

I imagine we will hug (a lot), talk incessantly, find out just exactly how tall each one of us is, discover what we each like to eat, extend our heartfelt gratitude for the mere existence of the others in our lives. It will be a week like no other we’ve all experienced to date. My excitement is contained only by the steps it will take to get there and the hope we can all be well together at the same time. If I have to be put on a gurney to get there so be it. That’s not facetious, either.

These friends and several more keep me afloat when I’m afraid I’ll sink. And the trip after that will be health willing in the spring to Ireland to finally live our dream of a pilgrimage along the western coast to see the birthplaces of our favorite poetry. And to spend the intimate time two friends can share as they make their way from some very painful situations to meet in that beauty and in the warmth of one another love for each other and for John O’Donohue to name one poet of whom we both would marry if firstly he hadn’t died in his sleep at 52 years of age, in his prime of writing, or secondly either of us were in any position currently to remarry.

But if John O mysteriously brings us physically together to traipse along like two girls hunting down a favorite pop band in our teens, so be it. Whatever it takes to make a fantasy come true to take a poetry pilgrimage and to hug, drive, sing, dance, stand in awe on seaside cliffs, touch a place where James Joyce once sat, you know. Average everyday la la la experiences.

The intersection of Surviving Breast Cancer and Poetry

It’s in the intersection of breast cancer and writing where I met my friend and fellow poet William Laferriere. We were introduced quite by one of those beautiful accidents. He’s an officer at Surviving Breast Cancer (http://www.surviving breast cancer.org). Earlier this year, William put out a call for entries for an upcoming poetry reading with other breast cancer survivors, thrivers, endurers, and some who fighter feels good for them to describe their journey. I do not judge anyone’s descriptions of their personal path or how they choose to walk it.

Along with a number of other women, I answered a call for poets to participate in that cancer poetry “slam” early this year.

It’s the year Zoom calls took over for in person meetups as we first struggled to move conferences to a virtual platform, to move training for patient advocacy and fit healing circles host and guardianship, to move support groups online and even our arts and talents.

I became sick of looking at my own face in the crazy Brady Bunch stack of faces on one or more pages wondering who and how people saw me. I whisked off to virtual break our rooms. I got my own professional version of Zoom to host meetings and have face to face calls with my friends and colleagues. I hopped on quick calls with friends that decided with me a face and the expressiveness of our real selves better served us than just voices. I recalled the days of watching the futuristic cartoon, The Jetsons, as Jane, George and their kids Judy and Elroy used video to talk to their friends, relatives and bosses. We came of age in desperate need of human connection as we all sheltered in place trying not to lose it from lack of human touch and expression.

Surprisingly to me, after I sent six poems to William for the poetry reading and wondering which one he’d choose for me to read, his response was an emphatic, “all of them.” I deeply appreciated the opportunity to share my world of words with a wider audience than the blog and the guest posts I’d written during the six years prior to the reading. I’d had other opportunities to read – many of you have seen in YouTube the Poetry Episode #46 of the née Brain Cancer Diaries now That Cancer Life – watch it here: https://youtu.be/Q6VXxj1_i1E.

But if I were forced to make a choice to just see her for a week or take that trip in particular without her I’d choose a week in the city of Anyoldplace Willdo, Earth. Truth.

Hello, was it me you’re looking for?
In the Oxford dictionary of quotations friendship is sandwiched between France and the French and the future as topics. Funny place to slot such important stuff of great people spilling great words memorably out into the world. Very few are still living of their quoted assuring us that there’s been more people who lived before us than live now.

What a strange thing to have friends I might not ever hug in person. But if my post to this point if you’re still reading and didn’t just put a little like star or say nothing at all wondering, “what kind of nut is this woman, clearly the cancers’ metastasized to her brain,” which according to my last PET CT scan of two weeks ago it most definitely has not we all looked at our faces too many times, but it became a portal into unimaginable life affirming events, discussions, video blogs, and most of all friendships.

Here in that sharing of joy of friendship and the building of the foundation of a caring relationship I want to share two of William’s poems. I’ve never asked him who or what they’re about, because as poets, we put our souls on the line and it’s up the the reader to determine and as he says, stay resolute.

So here’s William’s two contributed poems to this blog with his permission of course and I leave these with you to take and to make your very own. Thank you from my heart, dear friend, for giving my voice another platform on which to speak and to broadcast my words into the world to be embraced, or not, by people I may never know but whom share a few things in common with me. And for that this is a way I can show you my gratitude for helping me fine tune the how so I can better understand the why.

Stay Resolute
Well now
Who’s to say
What the cause is, and
What contribution did I make 
And will this get resolved
Does it get resolved
How
What questions need I ask
How many chemo drugs will be proffered
Which ones will I need
Which will produce the desired result
Which yield the nastiest side effects 
What are the percentages
Can they work to my advantage
Surgery
Oh boy
More of the same 
Talk to me about options
Please mention all
After all
It’s my body in the mirror
It’s my decision
But I need help 

Bellatrix 

Brilliant & lustrous 
Hot blue, corporeal  
Warrior to the end
Once the Amazon star
now fiend, 
and succubus
Enamored of Voldemort
A true Death Eater

Inuit welcomed her 
Aussie Wardaman sang her glories
She beckoned Spring
and of course 
Renewal

Friends of Rigel and Betelgeuse 
Residing on Orion’s enduring belt
Illuminating navigational clarity
Empowering all 
to decipher 
and chart a true bearing
Throughout this insidious & calamitous voyage 

Where are you going?

William Laferriere holds the posts of Board Executive and Business Development Officer at survivingbreastcancer.org, a comprehensive breast cancer patient care platform, based on the following 4 pillars, community, education, resources, & health and wellness. Please visit us at #survivingbreastcancer.org.
Boston, MA area Commercial/Residential Realtor
Former Division (Mandated Process) Operations Manager for USNationalGrid (a multinational electric and gas company.)

The artwork that adorns this post is by my friend Waz Thomas, cofounder of the Cancer Help Program and collage artist. This will also adorn the cover to my upcoming poetry chap book. I hope to get it out between November and December and I thank him for the use rights to such an incredible and provocative and perfect piece of art I’d been searching for to be on the very cover of this book. Thank you Wazzy.

2 comments on “The Poetry of Friends: through the lens of a terminal cancer diagnosis”

  1. Thank you my lovely friend for your kind words and including me and SBC in your wonderful blog. I look forward to our continued friendship and collaboration.

    Peace and love,
    W

    1. As you I know i do as well. Much ahead and much to do but poetry is my first child and we have a special place in our hearts for them Since I could not have any of my own, my writing and my beautiful stepsons suffice in a way its hard to replace. Peace peace ( as my mentor Michael Lerner is so fond of closing his discussions with…)

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