It was June 6th when John told me he was Sick.
We were enjoying a picnic in Central Park, but there was a reservation to him that day. He was hesitant in his actions; laying out the food carefully, gently sitting down, and looking at me with more intensity than normal. We were old friends. When I lightheartedly asked him to update me on his life, he cautiously and slowly took a deep breath. I spread some cheese on a cracker and passed it to him. And then, he said it…Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The words that followed jumbled in my mind, but I remember: Stage 3…chemotherapy…and treatment…All at once I was aware that despite the fact that I was sitting next to a person I love, I could not know his fear, his reservations, his confusion, or his expectations. And even more so, I could not spare him from those things. I could not will or wish them away. The tenderness of our human experience was quickly apparent to me, as was the tenuousness of our interconnection.
What followed was seven months of chemotherapy. John did not stop attending medical school. I did not stop working or attending graduate school. Life went on and treatment ensued. Every two weeks I traveled to John for the honor of holding his hand during chemo. We quickly set up routines… eating before treatment (because he was exhausted and nauseous after) and requesting certain nurses (because they were gentle or told funny stories).
Although I was not conscious of it at the time, for seven months I made it my job to be what was needed in the moment.
Whether it is a quiet hand holder, a playful jokester, a food preparer, a fear absorber, an advocate, or a sounding board.
From what John tells me, now that he’s in remission, I also gave him something more intangible…the chance to live the questions. The big questions. The questions about why this was happening to him. When I asked him how I enabled him to live the questions, he said, “by asking”. I suppose I was not afraid to go to the heart of the matter. I do not think I considered that there was any other place to go. I compassionately asked him to reflect on the meaning of his cancer and the growth that could emerge if he was open to it. We talked often about how he was integrating each part of his experience: what it felt like to be sick and be a doctor himself; what strengths he saw in himself; what qualities of character he wanted to hold on to when he was better; what story he would tell about this experience. He once told me that all my questions were offerings to him. Offerings to create meaning; to get to know himself; to relate; to love.
At this point, I know two things. First, the opportunity to witness John’s grace and inner fortitude was a privilege. Second,
I’m at my best when I’m fearlessly, yet empathetically, asking the big questions; getting people in touch with the significance of their experience.
It does not mean ascribing that understanding for them, it simply means helping them to see, more clearly, their relationships to themselves, to others, and to the world.