My greatest dream since age thirteen–when I discovered my love of writing–was to be a published author. Back then, I wanted to be a novelist, creator of gripping, over-the-top dramatic best sellers. Non-fiction essays held little interest for me outside of mandatory English assignments. What could possibly be interesting about non-fiction? It seemed so…limiting.
I could never have imagined the piece that got me a publishing credit would not only be an essay about my life, but one about the extraordinary oncology nurse who I encountered while she treated the love of my life–who was dying of cancer. It’s all at once triumphant and crushing–like I wasn’t careful enough what I wished for.
Though my essay didn’t win the competition I wrote it for, I was surprised and honored to be notified that it had been selected to be in a book of essays on the same topic: extraordinary healers, oncology nurses who touched people’s lives. What happened next was extraordinary in itself.
CURE magazine, the sponsor of the book, sent photographers to take photos of all the authors and the nurses they wrote about. So, on a cold winter day in January (very cold and very wintry in Chicago this year), I went to the Creticos Cancer Center, where Ken received innumerable treatments, to meet with our extraordinary healer, Blanca, to have what we described with a grin and wink as our “photo shoot.”
It just at the beginning of the shoot when Heather, the photographer, began asking us about Ken–something that took me off guard. Since I’m usually the one to bring him up, I’m somehow prepared for it. I’ve practiced enough and it doesn’t echo with sadness the way it used to. As she casually started asking about Ken and Blanca’s and my recollections of him in the very same room where we sat, my eyes widened in an attempt to keep them from filling with tears. I was at a familiar crossroads I hadn’t seen in a long time. I had to make a decision to anchor firmly in the present, and not let myself drift into the loving, comfortable and painful past. When I had a spouse. When I was in love. When my life was different.
Blanca talks to me about Ken (Kenny, actually) every time I see her, but sitting next to her, listening to her–watching her–talk about him was one of the most profound experiences of my life. She spoke of him with such reverence. “Kenny made an impression on everyone he met. I think it was one of the reasons he was here,” she said, matter-of-factly. Her words rang true with me. It’s a truth about him that is fundamental and undeniable. Anyone who knew him would agree.
Blanca is a source of light–as a nurse and as a human being–a very humble source of light. And one so obviously deserving of the title “extraordinary healer.” When asked about her favorite memories of him, she had a hard time narrowing them down, but talked about how crafty he was and how busy he was when he was there. I’d completely forgotten about the burgundy scarf he worked on while getting treatment and how often Blanca would comment on how beautiful it was, and that he’d gifted it to her when it was complete–which, of course, she still has and treasures. Of all the thousands of patients she’s treated there, I was touched (and not completely surprised) she had such vivid memories of Ken. He, too, was a source of light. Maybe that’s why the connected so well.
Blanca talked about how I come by the cancer center a couple of times a year and bring homemade baked treats for the nurses and staff. She told the photographer, “we’re grateful he remembers us.” How could I forget these incredible people or how drastically Ken’s and my life changed there–regardless of how difficult it was at times? No doubt some people might find it traumatic to go back there time and again. Completely understandable. But for me, someone who hasn’t had cancer, going there for purely social reasons is somehow a means of control of a long-ago situation I had no control over. It’s never easy for me to walk into that building, but I’m compelled to do so. Time and again. Like scratching at an old wound on hope that someday it will be tough enough to stop hurting.
Part of the reason I still go there is for Ken, of course. I love that they remember him–from the admin staff to radiology technicians to the nurses. I love that in our collective memories he lit up the place like it was a circus when he was there. And when I go there to make my care package deliveries, it sort of lights up again. People loved his spirit. And I hope I never get tired of reminding them of it.
Emotionally speaking, this photo shoot was a pendulous experience–as so many of them are for me when it comes to the subject of Ken, his illness and death. I found the photographer they sent to be very warm, kind and genuinely curious about the essay. During the course of the hour-or-so when she took 160 photos of Blanca and me, she asked all kinds of questions about Blanca, and her long and esteemed nursing career. And she asked delicately worded questions about Ken, too, that somehow made the experience very personal because it was the three of us together again: Ken and Blanca and me. And I loved that.