When I was seven years old, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my most probable response would have been “Lawyer!” It’s likely, too, that you would have been taken aback by the confidence in which I gave that response. As I’m sure most people know, life’s journey is rarely of simple travels –paths can be dark, beautiful and some even awfully treacherous. But these journeys take stake in our identities or at least part of them anyway. Events that happen we learn to make sense of much later. This is not to say we don’t find meaning in these things immediately, but, like a line in your favorite song, one day these events which have become so engrained in your memory touch you differently.
When I was in fifth grade, there was a class project to create a book for a first grader. All of my fellow classmates were excited to author their own books but even more so to personalize it for someone else. I was left out when the teacher revealed to everyone the names of our new first grade buddies, but I was left out for good reason. She took me aside to tell me the first grader’s name in private. She also told me that he had cancer and my job was special, but I have to admit, as a fifth grader I was a bit naïve and didn’t completely understand the gravity and significance of my new relationship.
Once a week we met with the first graders. Sometimes, most times, he was there. His eyes would widen with excitement when all the fifth graders walked into the classroom. He was barely capable of sitting still when we talked about the book, riding his bike, or baseball (I played baseball with his older brother). When our time was up, all my classmates would line up at the door, barely saying goodbye to their partners. But I would be the last to leave because I was wrapped in the arms of my first grader, hugging me as if it would be the last time he’d see me. He understood the reality of not seeing me in a week, a reality I failed to acknowledge.
The times he wasn’t at school for our meetings I would look around at my fellow classmates sharing their ideas and progress and building their relationships with new friends. Because this was a school project, no matter how desperately I wanted to hang-out with him and share with him the ideas for the book, I couldn’t. What I didn’t know was that he was probably too sick to come to school, in treatment or, even worse, endangered by coming to school because his immune system was too weakened. I understand this now, but when I was ten years old, all I cared about was spending time with him. Though, his much different than mine, all I wanted to do was to get both our minds off the rigmarole of the daily routine.
The book was finally finished. While everyone got to share their book personally with their partner, I was told by his teacher that she would make sure his mother would share it with him. I didn’t know it, but he was in his final stages of cancer and recovery wasn’t in his future. A few days later I was called to the principal’s office, and they showed me a video – a personal video message from my first grader expressing his gratitude.
Shortly after, he passed away. I attended his viewing, disturbed because the casket was smaller than they’re supposed to be. His mother saw me and hugged me similar to the way he used to but for much longer. I can’t remember in detail the words his mother spoke to me while we hugged each other that evening, but her words made me realize that my relationship with her son was one that took him away from being a child stricken with cancer.
Since then, I haven’t had a relationship with anyone who’s had cancer, but those memories of fifth grade still reside within me. And if you asked me this past May what I want to be when I grow up, my most likely response would have been “I have no idea.” Switching my Marine Corps uniform for a cap and gown, walking across the stage of my graduation ceremony, I somehow suddenly became a grown up. I never thought I would ever be associated with or connected to cancer again, but when I saw the position open for OncoLink, the memories of fifth grade and my relationship with my first grade friend thwarted any recognition of the present for a moment. Applying to the position was essential. Now, as I settle into my position with OncoLink, learning about Oncology patient care and survivorship, I’m coming to realize that my relationship with my first grade partner was that of rare quality. We all face struggles and there are some that are certainly more detrimental and life threatening than others, but hopefully we all have a support system during these struggles to help us see them through. In the fight against cancer, fighting is self-evident and survivorship requires hope. Regardless of the struggle, though, the friend or loved one that acts as the eye of a storm, taking you away from illness and back to the prosperity of health is just as meaningful as all the other supporters.
In fifth grade, I didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, understand the gravity and depth of befriending someone with cancer. To this day, I can’t even imagine being diagnosed with cancer, being forced to acknowledge my own mortality regardless of how invincible the Marine Corps wanted me to think I was. I don’t know much about cancer or specifically what cancer patients endure, but I am willing to learn. Even more so, I am ready and willing to be the friend that brings you to peace, even if temporarily, in the midst of an arduous fight.