It’s no accident that I haven’t written since my ovarian sister Sarah Feather passed away last month. I see now how she served as some kind of reference point for me, as if every time I sent my words out to the world, I was waiting for her response as a kind of echo of my own thoughts.
My words and Sarah’s words often crossed in virtual space, in a kind of linguistic ping-pong. As I wrote, I wanted to believe that somehow, the life force within me could be transferred to her, could help her heal, that maybe a miracle would germinate out of this evil disease we shared, and the way we both sought solace in writing about our battles with it.
Magical thinking rears its ugly head once again. Sarah is gone, her family bereft, and the young adult cancer community is left with a gaping hole where her wisdom once dwelled. As a survivor and a writer, I now struggle with how to express the continuing story of my life after near death. Death, you won your round with Sarah, and so I pledge anew, you heartless bastard, to shout even louder, to live even bigger, for her, for all of us.
Last month, I was touched and surprised to be asked to read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 at Sarah’s memorial service in Pennsylvania. The week before the service, I spoke with her dear husband for almost 45 minutes on the phone, my heart clenching in my chest the entire time. At the memorial, meeting and hugging Sarah’s beautiful mother, I found myself suddenly gripped by sobs that felt as old as time, borne of a primal sadness. Reading Shakespeare’s words before a church filled with strangers who had loved Sarah, I felt my heart floating somewhere outside my body. As a cancer survivor and a virtual friend, I felt lost on some kind of alternate trajectory of pain and loss – embraced by Sarah’s family and friends, but distinctly alone in knowing, from the inside out, the havoc that cancer wreaks, and the powerful connections it engenders in those who have been forced to fight it.
Sarah’s was the first memorial I have attended for a fellow young adult warrior. It surely won’t be the last. This phenomenon, then, is something I’d best get used to: the peculiar tension of grieving for a friend while simultaneously recognizing my own near head-on collision with death.
So the balancing act will continue, and so it actually felt perfectly right to run my first half-marathon two weeks after Sarah’s memorial. I ran hard, and I ran for Sarah. This weird dream of mine had finally come true – I achieved this previously incomprehensible goal, and reclaimed my battered body and soul in the process.
The journey from the first time I stepped onto a treadmill after treatment – my feet painful and buzzing with neuropathy, when I could barely run a mile – to crossing the finish line in Vermont, has been epic. But I have been fortunate enough to choose my battle, to take on a challenge and see it through, and strengthen and better myself along the way. Sarah and so many others never had that choice. Her course was set by the cruel hand of fate. She could claim victory only by choosing when the fight would end.
Today, I visited my oncologist for the first time in six months, and was greeted with hugs and smiles as I regaled her and my favorite nurse with tales of my athletic triumphs and impending parenthood. After my exam, as I hopped off the table, I said to my doctor, “It seems like forever since I’ve been here.”
“That’s good!,” she beamed. “You’re a healthy person now!”
So I am.
So I will saddle up for the next challenge, always carrying with me the wisdom of those who have left us, grateful to have been spared and left to soldier on. And I will shout so that an angel in heaven can hear me, as I rage in her memory. Perhaps in that way, our conversation – and our fight – will never end.