When I looked at my cell phone the display announced a message from Heather. Heather and I have been church family for two decades. She brings meals to my home in trying seasons, speaks wisdom into my life in the church parking lot, and faithfully holds me up in moments when the prayers of the saints are my strength. I have the privilege of walking closely with Heather during some of her trials as well. The funny thing is that we don’t spend much time together socially. We don’t get together for dinner or walks or mani-pedis. But nevertheless we keep showing up on one another’s doorstep when life is hard.
I opened the text and read, “I want you to know that I just graduated from cancer medication! Since you were the one who took me to pick up my first prescription of Tamoxifen followed by lunch at Rubios, I want to thank you for walking this five year journey with me by taking you to lunch once again at Rubios.”
A few days later I sat at a high table by the window, eating a fish taco as Heather told me the rest of the story, “At my last appointment my oncologist told me that I’m officially in remission and that I can stop taking my medication cold turkey. I don’t even have to finish my current bottle. I have 20 tablets left and want to think of a meaningful way to dispose of them.”
Heather and I brainstormed a few ideas and then decided to take turns sharing things that we are grateful for from the last five years. We dropped a Tamoxifen tablet into a small Rubio’s cup for every expression of thankfulness.
One at a time the tiny tablets hit the bottom of the wax-coated, paper cup and resounded our gratitude for health, family, faith, church, and friendship.
Plink. I thanked Heather for the gift she gave me and many women by drawing us close following her breast cancer diagnosis. She navigated her treatment journey with her family and our church community by inviting different women to take her to a daily radiation appointments, and then have tea in the hospital coffee shop. And to organize the sign ups, Heather’s children created a shared spreadsheet entitled “Tea & Ta-tas”.
But Heather didn’t just ask for transportation, many patients drive themselves to treatment. Heather invited women to go with her into the waiting room for patients receiving cancer treatments at various stages of their disease. Accompany her into the hospital basement where she prepped for radiation. Observe in the treatment room as the specialist positioned her on the table and carefully lined up the linear accelerator to deliver the dose of radiation.
We also had to leave her in the lead-lined radiation room, that was for Heather a brief yet lonely time of seclusion. And we listened to the whirring of the machine that directs a high energy beam customized to the size and shape of her tumor, as the nurses played a recording of Heather’s son performing “I Still Love Your Guts” with his band.
Heather showed each of us the dot tattoos on her breast bone and rib cage that directed the specialists positioning the therapeutic equipment. She introduced us to oncology staff. And she stood with us in front of the gold celebration bell that patients ring when the finish radiation and are on their way toward remission.
Heather admits that her unusual community approach to cancer treatment – 33 tea parties in 6 weeks – is not for everyone. Every person’s cancer journey is unique and scary, personal and sacred, and one way of navigating that journey is not better than another. But Heather is a home-school mom who created meaning during a difficult time by offering her experience as an opportunity for other woman to take a behind the scenes educational “field trip”. One in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer, and Heather knew that witnessing her experiences up close could remove some of the fear of the unknown for others who will also receive that diagnosis.
Plink. I also thanked Heather for trusting me with some of the most intimate parts of her life even though I haven’t earned it through numerous lunch dates, returned favors, and frequent conversation. We are church family. We step into into one another’s stories as needed, and that it enough.
The value of a friendship is not necessarily based on the quantity of time spent together. The value of our friendships are rooted in the depth of experiences shared. When time feels scarce, it important to remember that we can have a significant impact on one another just by sharing honestly with each other in the moments that are hard and scary and uncertain.
We aren’t designed to walk hard roads alone, and we don’t have to limit our support network to those we spend a lot of time with. We just have to willing to be vulnerable with our community in times of trouble – asking for help and expressing gratitude – to receive the strength that comes from carrying our burdens together.
Celebrating a victory over a plate of fish tacos is also recommended, but I guess that optional.