I still keep their names in a list.
Technically, I don’t need to hang on to the list; I mean, I don’t even work there anymore. I never really needed to keep a list in the first place; it just seemed to me like there should be some kind of a record of their names. I wanted to be sure I never forgot anyone.
There were privacy concerns, as there are still, so I kept the list hidden from view, and included only their first names, one after the other in two columns going on three in various iterations of my handwriting, depending on how busy I was when they made the list, when I added their names, and how tired I was, how sad.
You see, I didn’t just know their names, I knew them; some of them I had known for years, some I saw as often as once a week. The ink on the names is smeared in places, because of a secret that no one knew, but that I will tell you now. It is smeared because sometimes, after a day of keeping it together at my job in the clinic for young women with breast cancer—where I entertained toddlers on walks through hallways, them but not I blissfully unaware of the danger ahead, and where I sat, powerless, with husbands who sobbed unabashedly in the waiting room, faces hidden in their hands, and where I heard mothers’ whispered confessions that while they were devastated, they were trying hard to appear positive for their ill daughters, and also still praying for a miracle while demanding to know why, why?? God couldn’t just take them instead??—I would walk back to my desk. And I would be glad on those days, if not others, that it was really kind of a crummy desk, tucked in a dark and quiet corner in a research building. Because it was there I would sit. And in the quiet darkness, I would cry.
I cried because it never got easier, and I cried because I didn’t want it to. I never wanted it to be anything but excruciating to be adding names to my list, names which belonged to young women who looked like my friends, my neighbors, my daughters, myself. Names of women who had been stolen from all of us by breast cancer.
They looked like us because they were us, in a collective sense, as we are now and as we were in years past: young college students, young professionals, young engaged-to-be-marrieds, young newlyweds. They were all manners of moms, too: brand-spanking- heartbreakingly-new moms, working moms, stay-at-home moms, poor single moms more worried about school clothes or Christmas gifts than themselves. They took care of themselves, got their mammograms, and sometimes ate vegan and ran marathons. And they were all in our clinic and they all had metastatic breast cancer, and then they were gone. The depth and the constancy of the sadness around death and dying frightened me but what frightened me more was the possibility of becoming numb to the losses, blind to the injustice, hardened to the utter tragedy of it all. I didn’t want to be a part of a world where this was anything but a crying shame.
It’s Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day (#MBCAD) today, and I am all in on raising awareness of MBC. I wanted to mark this day by honoring the women on my list, remembering them as I do sometimes, and also all the time. I thought maybe I might even write a collective eulogy of sorts, say a few words about them, so you could know them a bit too. That way, I thought, you would know how much we have lost—no, what MBC has stolen from us of this world—and why many of us hate it so much, how urgently we need to make it stop.
Maybe it was the impossible task of trying to eulogize without names or identifying information that would violate privacy rules that made it so hard to do. More likely, it was just that it was a lazy and unfair idea, as it almost always is when we try to put people into groups, thinking it will make easy to say stuff about them. There is no collective anything to be said. There is only this: the list is longer than we wish it was, but given the circumstances, it ought not be shortened. Given the very real losses, it is as long as it should be. Tragic as it is, every woman gets her own spot on my paper memorial. She is to be remembered not as one of thousands of patients with this disease, not as a casualty of a war, not as a part of a group, not even as a line on a list.
She is to be remembered as a woman who had hopes and dreams and goals and children and sisters and parents. She heard words no one wants to hear, and suffered immeasurable heartache in the process, but she kept going because that is what women do, even when they are not sure how or if they can. She did the best she could, the whole way, which was sometimes better than others, but was always as much as, and often more than, anyone could expect. She might have bristled if you called her brave; she might have argued that she was so afraid. Still, you could not have helped but notice her grace under pressure, her beauty under fire. She might have been fighting until the last minute, or have been preternaturally peaceful along the way. She might not ever have realized that she was unwittingly teaching you along the way, to do better, to be better, to carpe the hell out of every diem. To go and visit your girlfriends every chance you get, to treasure your sister every day that you can. She might have unwittingly reminded you, as she clawed for time, time, more time, that you only have this one life, that tomorrow is never promised. And that might have then and may still now make you impatient and a little skittish, but it also might inspire you to honor her each day by taking that forward in your own life, in a legacy known only to you, considered in the quiet darkness of your desk and marked by the smeared ink of private tears on a hand-written list. One that you still keep close, even though you don’t even work there anymore. Because, more than ever, you want to be sure you never forget anyone.
I sure wish you could have known her.
#MBCAD #52for52 (20/52)
If you would like to donate to metastatic breast cancer research, please consider these quality organizations, all of whom fund important work in the field.