Each spring, the curriculum required a poetry unit to end the year. Most of my tenth graders groaned every spring until the year I had them write their own poems and choose their favorite for a class anthology. I think it may have been my best use of copy paper in 30 years of teaching. On the last block day before exams, I handed out the stapled booklets, and some students eagerly read their poems to the class. The students proudly autographed one another’s poems, and some asked me to sign their copies.
I wonder now, ten years since the last time I made those anthologies, how many students still have them stuffed in a box of mementos in their parents’ closets. I gave them lines from famous poems or ideas to get them started, and I always wrote with them, generally throwing most of mine away, though I kept one now and then to use the next year, mostly to show them that while I wasn’t a poet, I wasn’t afraid to try my hand at doing what I asked them to do. I was always gratified as a teacher when, after hearing mine, they wrote poems that I liked more than my own.
I’ve kept a few of those anthologies. And one of my own poems. I remember it now, ten years later—a shadow poem about my alter-ego, the one who danced with confidence, who never worried she would get cancer.
I remember the poem because, at the very moment I wrote it, cancer had already invaded my breast and threatened to spill into the rest of my body. I just didn’t know it yet. That following October, I was diagnosed with early Stage 3 cancer.
And I can’t begin to count the number of times in the ten years since then that I’ve been contacted by women who were equally stunned to find themselves or their friends in the same situation.
Today—not by any means for the first time—a friend contacted me to say that her friend, a woman with young children, will be having surgery for breast cancer in the coming days. “What kind of help can we give her?” she asked.
My mind returned immediately to those tenth graders, who made up a basket of their favorite things—a pink Beanie Baby from a girl whose mother had breast cancer, a book of Far Side cartoons, a copy of one student’s favorite classic movie and another’s favorite book and more—all accompanied by notes explaining their choices.
“Send flowers?” my friend asked. “She’s not really a flower person.”
Some people did send me flowers. And I loved them. But it’s not the flowers I remember. One friend went with me to choose a wig, and she encouraged me to spend the money to buy the wig I really wanted. My colleagues and friends created a sign-up list and brought meals to our family twice a week for the eight weeks I was on leave from work. And ten years later, I still remember my friend’s laugh when I tried on the Marilyn Monroe blonde wig. I remember the specific meals my colleagues brought. I remember the friend who offered to vacuum my house and clean the bathrooms, even though I assured her my housecleaner wasn’t the one who was ill.
So what kind of help makes a difference? Tell your friend that you can’t really know how she’s feeling or what she needs from you. Maybe it’s space. Maybe it’s just your presence. Whatever it is, encourage her to be honest—to let you know if there’s something specific she needs or if she just wants to be left alone.
A true friend is one she can ask to sit beside her while she has chemo to give her husband a break. A true friend is someone who’ll tell her she’s still beautiful when she has no hair. A true friend is someone who will take her kids so that she and her husband can have a date night and try to figure out their new normal. A true friend is one who will reassure her when she says she’s afraid there will never be a day again when her first waking thought isn’t cancer.
So ask her. Encourage her to be honest. And then come back to this blog and tell your own stories of what kind of help you gave that came as a blessing at just the right moment.