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Cancer stole my friend's words Add to ...

If we switched places, my friend Sheree and I – if Sheree were the healthy one and I were the one dying – she would know what to write. She had a way with words, that girl. A gift. She made sense of life through telling it.

So, if we switched places, she and I, she would write the story of my death with wit and precision. She’d find meaning in the way I came to my end, on a big brown bed in a sunny Edmonton house by a fountain in the spring. And she wouldn’t use any of it – not one singing bird or drift of warm air – for clumsy rebirth and resurrection metaphors. Because that was one of the things about Sheree I wish you could have known. She had a way with metaphor. And she wasn’t afraid to use it.

Sheree’s husband phoned me Good Friday. (Cue the clumsy metaphor.) The doctors said the cancer had spread to her brain. He cried when he told me. “It’s the most beautiful part of her.”

You see, that’s the thing about cancer. You resist the urge to embody it, to afford it agency or will; it’s nothing more, after all, than a parasite blind-stupid enough to destroy its host. Still, it’s hard not to think of it as wily. In the end it took from Sheree everything, but first it took her words.

Sheree had a daughter, a beautiful young woman she’d promised never to leave. We all make those promises – foolish ones, of course – but there was something more to it for Sheree. Her own father left the day Sheree was born and her mother not long thereafter.

When Sheree was 8, her mother – up till then a stranger who turned up from time to time in turquoise pumps and hair like candy floss – took her away from the grandparents she loved. “I’m back with your father,” her mother declared, and that was the end of that. What was never declared was that her father was a bully, and that living with a man whose cruelty was both random and routine was what Sheree had to look forward to from that day on.

So when Sheree was first diagnosed, the worst thing she could imagine was leaving her daughter behind. She stopped writing then, paralyzed with anxiety, because there was no narrative she could construct to deal with the enormity of that desertion.

It was only when she convinced herself to hope – a big fat cheat, she knew, but useful nonetheless – that Sheree started to write again. She wrote stories for her daughter. She wrote about her first memory – age 2 in a striped dress and white gloves, the congregation laughing when she shook the baptismal water from her head. The peach, stitched lining of a stranger’s makeup bag – her mother’s.

The day she met her father for the first time, and a dog bit her in the face (yes, cue the foreshadowing).

I read things Sheree wrote for her daughter that last weekend, when I travelled to her yellow-brick house by the fountain to take part in her dying. By then the cancer, which had robbed her of the strength to sit up, to eat, to move her limbs, had stolen her ability to find words.

Often, what she said made no sense at all. But then, eyes closed as happens in the distancing before death, she would burn through. So when a palliative care doctor suggested she may have to return to the hospital to die, she said, frail and enraged, wrapped in blanket upon blanket: “Doctors. They crush my head.”

Later, with her daughter at the foot of her bed, the cats locked in the basement, she said out of nowhere and with vehemence, “He doesn’t play by the rules, and I don’t like it.” She meant the cancer – or God.

Sometimes she said she wanted out of there. She said she just wanted to be happy. She said she needed wishes, and we made up stories about her daughter’s life when she was gone. Sometimes she cried. She said once, when we clumsily tried to move her, “I want happy, active people!” Which I understood to mean people who knew what the hell they were doing. Another time, propped up on heaps of pillows, helpless against the pain in her bones, she said, “I am at a crossroads, and I don’t know what to do.”

And then came the good part, and the hard part. The last night I was there, the night I had to leave her, we knew she was listening. More than listening. There were three of us with her, another friend, her husband and I. I said I never would have believed it if someone had told me 20 years before that her husband, rogue that he was, would find a woman, marry her and be faithful to her forever. “You made a man out of me, Sheree,” he said. It was hard to tell, but it seemed she was laughing. “It was bad,” she said. “It was bad.”

When the other two left the room for a moment, I curled up on the bed beside her, and said what I believed I needed to say. That I was so blessed, so privileged that she was my friend. That I loved her.

Her eyes were closed. She held my hand. “Let’s just be easy,” she said.

So I shut up. The woman without words had made herself gently and perfectly clear. She didn’t want or need my melodrama. And she wanted to save me from it, too. And so I held her hand. And so she fell asleep, in her big brown bed, closed away from the spring night air, and safe. I have to believe she was safe.

There are many things I wish you could have known about my friend, Sheree. That she, for one, had a gift for endings. But I do not have that gift. All I can do is try.



Lynda Shorten lives in Toronto.

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