I didn’t know what to wear. Of all the things to think about on that first morning, I concentrated on clothing. Not too dressy—it wasn’t a party. I wouldn’t wear a clingy shirt or short skirt. I wasn’t out to impress anyone and I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying too hard. Not too casual—it wasn’t a picnic. Sweatpants or jeans would send the wrong message.
Settling on a yellow pantsuit and a brown blouse, I thought about what Henry always used to tell me whenever I wore yellow. “Baby, yellow looks like melted butter on your hot cocoa skin.” I smiled as I remembered Henry’s way with words, then focused on my clothes to stop the painful surge of emotion threatening to engulf me. The brown blouse was short sleeved. I figured that would make things easier. This was my first time, and I was nervous.
It was a short drive and I arrived early. Parking in the free lot, I meandered around the garden before entering the building at precisely ten minutes to nine, still early. My girlfriend Sheryl had offered to drive me, but this was something I wanted to do alone. At least the first time. As it turned out, I was okay.
After the requisite forms were filled out, questions answered, survey finished, and bathroom needs satisfied, I was ushered into a large, comfortable room—if I didn’t know better I’d think it was a large, cozy living room. A room for living. Paintings of farms and seascapes adorned the mint-green walls. Large, growing, healthy plants reached upward from large vases placed strategically around the room. It occurred to me that the ivy, pothos, ferns, and dieffenbachia were the healthiest living beings in the room, but I suppressed that thought and allowed myself to be led to my chair.
After a quick check-in process, confirming my insurance and identity, a large, dark-skinned Jamaican woman came over and introduced herself as Pauline. Her very large breasts pushed her white uniform out in front of her, and she waddled when she walked. She said she would be my nurse, and encouraged me to sit in the dark green, soft recliner. I removed my jacket and she proceeded to take my blood pressure and temperature. My pressure was up, no surprise there, but not up so high that they wouldn’t continue. Darn! My temperature was normal. No help there, either.
Pauline explained the drugs I would be getting the first time, how long the infusion would take, and how I might react. I listened quietly, fighting a mountainous urge to get up and walk out. I could take a chance and forego the chemo. It might not
help anyway. As I looked around the room I saw about eight other women—all significantly older than me. At 43, I seemed to be the youngest woman in the room by about 15 years. Most of them were old enough to be my mother. All the patients were White women, except one other Black woman on the other side of the room. She looked like one of the ushers in my church. I could easily picture her with a purple dress and a large, feather-topped hat, sitting respectably in the back pew. I wanted to sit next to her. No, actually, I wanted to sit on her lap.
Interrupting my reverie, my oncologist Dr. Chen came over and asked me how I was feeling. “Ready to get this over with,” I said.
“I understand,” Dr. Chen said, but I thought to myself, how could you? Have you ever had breast cancer? Dr. Chen was a young professional with a reputation for saving lives. So I put my life in her hands and excused her somewhat lacking bedside manner.
Dr. Chen explained the medicine would take 45 minutes to be administered intravenously. I should feel fine for the first few hours. Then I would begin to feel tired, weak, and nauseous. Those sensations could last for a few hours, or a few days, and they could be quite mild, or very severe. It all depended on how well I tolerated the chemo.
Pauline came back and inserted the IV. She was a real pro, thank God. Most of the time when I have blood drawn it takes three or four tries, but Pauline was good. I was glad to see her every time I came to chemo. A bright spot. The other bright spot was Edna.
My first time at chemo I was so nervous I didn’t look around much. I didn’t have the energy, desire, or spirit to interact with anyone I didn’t have to. The way the room is set up, there is a recliner for the patient to sit in, and an armchair for a guest in each small, curtained-in area. A TV and a small table for drinks or food gives it a homey atmosphere—that’s the goal. They even provide a newspaper and some magazines. They think of everything except how to prevent cancer from attacking in the first place. They even have a wig shop right there. How convenient. It’s either depressing or thoughtful—or both.
So I was squirreled away in my little cubicle, and Edna came over and introduced herself my first time there. My first impression of Edna? She knew who she was. She walked with purpose, offering an encouraging smile to all the women getting chemo. A dynamo in a small package, Edna couldn’t have been more than 5 feet 2 inches, with soft, white, curly hair, and a face that had seen a lot of sun and now sported many deep wrinkles. But the deepest wrinkles were around her eyes and mouth—laugh lines earned through years of smiling and laughing. She seemed preternaturally serene.
“Hi, my name is Edna. I’m a volunteer and I’m here to help you in any way I can.”
“Hi, I’m Victoria.”
“You’re here by yourself?” Edna asked.
“Yes. I have a friend on standby if I need a ride home. But I wanted to come alone the first time.”
“That’s brave of you. Very admirable. If you do need a ride home my Jacob would be more than happy to help you out. He’s my husband, but he’s also my chauffeur. He drives me here, he drives me to my lunch dates, to meetings at the YMHA, to our daughter’s house. I told him I was going to change his name from Jacob to James. But he said he was born Jacob and he will die Jacob. So if you need a ride home, you can count on my Jacob.”
“Not at all. Not at all. Here he is now. Jacob, dear, this is Victoria. This is her first time and I told her if she needed a ride home you could help her out. Right?” “Certainly. I’d be happy to help. Edna, would you like a cup of coffee, dearest? I’m just going down to the café to get a cup.”
“No, Sweet. No thanks. I’m fine. Go ahead; take your time. Victoria and I were just having a little chat.”
That’s how it started. We were “having a little chat.” And we continued our chats every time I went to chemo. After the third treatment we decided to meet for lunch four days later. I don’t remember whose idea it was. It seemed to emanate from both of us. We made an odd couple—young Black professional woman and old Jewish volunteer. But we connected on so many levels. She understood me when I told her how I felt. I could complain about my symptoms over and over and she never tired of hearing my tirades.
It occurred to me much later that our relationship was rather one-sided. The first time I met her, I spoke little and she filled the void with chatter, but after that I did most
of the talking. Edna didn’t talk much about her own life. I knew she and Jacob had been married for 44 years and had two children—a daughter in Queens and a son in Manhattan. But I didn’t know much else. Belatedly, I realized she had a subtle way of diverting the conversation back to me every time I asked about her life. I don’t think that was part of the volunteer training—just part of Edna.
That first time, she almost talked me into forgetting where I was, and why. “Don’t they set this room up nicely, Victoria? It’s so comfortable, with recliners, all the plants, and the windows so you can see outside. You almost forget why you’re here.”
“Almost… It reminds me of when I had my son Matthew. I didn’t want a traditional hospital setting, so I chose to use a midwife and have him at a maternity center. It’s just a Victorian-style house! I went through labor in the living room and gave birth in the bedroom. Then I had a nice shower.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of that. We’re going back to how we used to do it before all this newfangled medicine made giving birth so sterile and uncomfortable.”
“You mean it wasn’t uncomfortable when you gave birth?” Victoria tilted her head as her eyebrows came together.
Edna laughed. “Of course it was. But it was natural—no need for all these interventions. When our daughter gave birth to our first granddaughter, she went to the hospital. But she had their second child at home—a boy. She invited us to come over and watch, and take pictures! I came over after he was cleaned up. Then we helped plan the bris. That was a celebration. The first boy born into the family in over a decade. And she had him in the living room! That’s living alright—bringing a new baby boy into the world!”
Edna continued. “They do the same thing here, you know. The paintings and plants make you think you’re in a living room. You are. You’re in a room with other living people and you’ll all fighting for your lives. That’s living. I once heard a very wise rabbi say, ‘I don’t want to die before I’m dead.’ He had a brain tumor, but lived life to the fullest as long as possible. His theory was to live each moment fully, and not dwell on death. Live while you’re alive. Don’t die before you’re dead. I never forgot that. And do you know, when he did die, he had a smile on his face.”
“I’ll have to remember that. Don’t die before you’re dead. That’s good.”
“That rabbi hated it when people said they were dying. He would say, ‘You’re either living or you’re dead. You’re not dying. Dying doesn’t take years—it takes but a moment in time. If you’re alive, you’re living and you should act like it.’ “
Edna could talk on and on. Sometimes I listened intently, and at other times I nodded in agreement, but felt like I was being lulled into submission. Her soft, Brooklyn-tinged Jewish cadence was strangely soothing.
I didn’t end up needing a ride from Jacob that first time. I felt fine when the chemo finished—ready to run a 5K, even. But that euphoria was short-lived. About an hour after I got home I felt like I had just contracted the worst case of the flu. I called my friend Sheryl, and she came within minutes.
My son Matthew wasn’t home from school yet. The way I felt, I didn’t want Matthew to see me and freak out. Sheryl was great. She stayed downstairs, coming up
to my room every hour or so to check on me, emptying my barf bowl, wiping my face with a warm washcloth, fluffing my pillows, murmuring “you’ll be okay, girl.” Matthew got home after 4pm. My door was open so I could hear their conversation.
“She’s not feeling great right now, Matt. She’ll probably stay in her room for the rest of the night. I’m going to make us some dinner, okay? Spaghetti sound okay?” “Sounds great. Thanks, Auntie Sheryl.”
Matthew came upstairs and peeked his head around my door.
“You okay, Mom?” His voice was soft and wavering, higher than normal, though it was changing every day.
“Matt. I’m not feeling too great right now, baby. Auntie Sheryl will take care of you. I’m sure I’ll be better tomorrow.” I promised him what I did not believe. I wasn’t better the next day, nor the next. I was one of the unlucky few who didn’t tolerate even the mildest chemo well. My whole body ached—picture an elephant sitting on you while a monkey pulls your limbs in all directions. Everything hurt – from my stomach and chest, to the backs of my knees and my ears. Everything. Once I had thrown up everything in my stomach, I had the dry heaves for a few more hours. That was the worst. I hated those dry heaves. That was what I dreaded the most after every chemo treatment. My stomach felt like it was being thoroughly scraped out with one of those wide, flat putty knives by a big construction guy named George.
The second chemo treatment was worse than the first. The second time I knew what to expect afterward, and even though I tried to live in the moment and not think ahead, it was impossible. Edna did make it easier.
“How are you feeling, Victoria?” Edna asked.
“Right now? I’m fine. I’m not looking forward to tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day.”
“I know what you mean, dear. This is the easy part, relatively speaking. Getting that needle in your arm might seem hard, but I know this is the easy part. Like making matzo balls. I could do it in my sleep. I don’t need a recipe; I don’t need instructions. It just comes naturally! Mmm, this is the easy part, no doubt. Oh, here’s Jacob. Would you
be a dear and get me a cup of coffee? Thank you,” she smiled sweetly.
Jacob leaned over and kissed Edna gently but firmly right on the mouth. He was not ashamed to kiss his wife in public, but I felt like I was intruding on a private moment. He held her chin with his right hand, leaned in slowly, and branded her with a kiss. His kiss communicated, ‘this is my woman, I love her, and I’m going to keep her.’ I was startled by the gentle fire in his demeanor. I loved watching Edna and Jacob together. After being married as long as they had been, they could finish each other’s sentences, and often did. Edna talked constantly, and Jacob, like me, nodded constantly. “Would you like anything else, darling?” Jacob asked.
“No, dear. Just a cup of coffee. Victoria, do you want anything? It might help to have a little something in your stomach. Maybe a little ginger ale, or some tea? How about a buttered roll? That can’t hurt.”
“A buttered roll does sound good. Thanks.”
“One buttered roll for Victoria, and one hot, black coffee for my Edna. Would you like some tea, Victoria?”
“Sure! I’d love some herbal tea. Whatever they have is fine, except peppermint.” “Coming right up, ladies.” Jacob disappeared, moving quickly for an older man, and disappeared from the room on his errand.
“Victoria, God gave me a wonderful man. I thank Him every day for that man. He’s not perfect. No man is. But he’s a good man. So many of my friends have lost their husbands. My Jacob, he’ll outlive me. I know it.”
“You never know. Some people are diagnosed with a fatal illness and end up living 20 more years. And the next-door-neighbor ends up dying of a heart attack. You just never know,” Victoria said.
“You’re right. That’s true. It’s never wise to second-guess God. He has our days numbered, and only He knows the number.”
We had similar views of God—a Black Baptist and a Conservative Jew. We both held God in high regard and thought of Him as a source of life, love, and strength. I’ll never forget Edna’s next question.
“Are you married?”
No matter how many times people asked me that question in the three years since Henry died, it never ceased to hurt. I felt broadsided. A sudden, hard, unwarranted hit. I had to consciously hold myself erect to keep from looking stricken—smacked with the reminder of my widowhood.
I paused and breathed—using the deep breathing techniques I learned in grief counseling. “No … uhm, my husband died three years ago.” There. It was out. I could breathe now.
Edna reached out and held my free hand.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, dear. How thoughtless of me. I felt so sorry to see you alone, and wondered why your husband couldn’t be here. What a lot you’ve been through. My God. And you’re so young.”
“I have a few sayings that keep me going. Like ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ and ‘this, too, shall pass,’ or ‘one day at a time.’ I almost sound like I’m in AA!” I laughed to myself. “But I try to focus on the positive. This is Tuesday. I’m thinking about taking my son Matthew to his baseball game Friday. I should be feeling well enough. I had 15 wonderful years with my husband. Most people can’t say that. Oh, maybe they’ve been married a lot longer, but they weren’t good years. I miss Henry every day—but I’m thankful for the time we had.
“Take today. I didn’t want to come. But I knew I’d see you, and I know if I don’t continue with the chemo, the cancer will spread. So here I am. Edna and Friday. That’s what I’m looking forward to. That’s what will see me through!”
“You are so refreshing. So many of my friends are lonely and bitter. They’re not thankful for the good life they had, only bemoaning what they don’t have now. One of my friends was married to a wonderful man. All she could do was complain about him when they were married, but since he died she only has good things to say,” Edna said.
“I remember what you said last time,” I told Edna. “I think about it all the time. I want to live while I’m alive. I don’t want to die before I’m dead. When I had the mammogram that showed a spot… I almost lost it. I felt sorry for myself – a nice, long pity party. I screamed at God, ‘Why me? Haven’t I been through enough?’ I cried for days. I’ve lost a lot of people close to me, my parents, grandparents, and my husband. But they shaped me. They made me who I am. So, in the midst of it all, I’m thankful. I have a lot of good friends, my son, my church, and you, Edna,” I said, reaching to hold her hand.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s this. It’s how we respond to suffering that shapes us. Everyone suffers. No one can say whose pain is worse. But 90% of life is how we react to the pain. I’m not saying we should lie down and accept fate, be stoic and not complain. But we don’t fight it because we think we don’t deserve it. We accept it, AND fight it.”
The third time I had chemo they used a new drug. It was bright pink. Great. I had just gotten used to the first drug–no that’s not true; I had learned what to expect with the first drug. Now they were trying a new, stronger drug. I felt dizzy just thinking about it. I still had my hair, and I was wondering when it would fall out. Instead of getting a perm last time I went to the beauty parlor, I had it cut short. I wanted there to be less to fall out. I loved my hair—I’d braid it, or twist it, or put it back in a ponytail, or up in a bun. Now I had a short afro.
The pink chemo was the worst. Jacob drove me home that day. I didn’t open the curtains in my room for three days. I was too tired to even go to the bathroom, so I laid
my blanket right on the bathroom floor and slept, when sleep would come. I didn’t know it was possible to feel that miserable. The pain was never-ending–an insatiable beast that demanded more than I could give.
On Day Four, I opened the curtains a little. On Day Five, I went downstairs to lie on the couch in the living room. On Day Ten, I went out to breakfast with Edna. I arrived before her and waited on a bench by the front door. Jacob opened the door with his customary flourish and waved Edna in before him.
“Victoria! Oh my, you do look worn out. That last drug really knocked you out. Jacob, look at our poor Victoria. My dear, are you sure you’re up to having breakfast today? We could meet tomorrow, or even the next day. My schedule is open. I don’t volunteer again ‘till Friday.”
“I feel a little better than I look, I think. I’ve been looking forward to our breakfast today. I’ll be fine.”
“Well, in that case, I will leave you two ladies to your girl talk. I’ll be back in an hour, sweet Edna.” Jacob leaned over and kissed Edna briefly and waved goodbye to me as he left.
After we sat down I spilled out my litany of woes and the misery I’d been through since the pink chemo. Edna asked questions, commiserated with me, and gave me the sympathetic ear I needed most. Edna knew what I needed–to be heard. She didn’t offer answers. She didn’t say it would all be better soon. She just listened.
“Edna, this morning I was so scared. I was using the bathroom and when I turned to flush the toilet the water was bright red! I almost passed out. I didn’t have my
period – what in the world was happening to me. It took me a minute before I remembered Pauline said I might have red urine after the chemo. Then, when I got in the shower some of my hair started to come out. I just stood there and cried in the shower. I knew it would happen, but I wasn’t ready. And it’s not just the hair on my head. I won’t need a bikini wax for a while!”
Edna laughed softly.
“That’s it, Victoria. See a little humor in the pain. See the hidden fringe benefit. That will help you get through it. There is an end to the treatments. You’re halfway through!”
We finished our breakfast and Jacob picked up Edna. I hugged her goodbye, holding on a little longer than usual.
For my next treatment they used yet another new drug. Pauline hooked me up and I sat upright in the easy chair—misnamed oxymoron for a holding cell for cancer patients. I tried to focus on the talking heads debating politics on TV, but couldn’t keep my eyes from wandering back to the IV bag, wondering what horrific reactions my body would have to the drugs dripping into my veins. I knew it would make me sick. But would it save my life?
The drug kept dripping. It was hypnotizing. Drip….drip….drip. I counted the drops of hope and pain as they left the clear bag and entered the long tube ending in the needle in my arm. I glanced up at the clock, wondering where Edna was today. She was always so punctual.
I saw an unfamiliar figure enter the room—a man in his 40s who looked like Jacob, hidden behind two very large bouquets of flowers. Where was Jacob? Where was Edna? I looked around the pink Gerbera daisies and bright orange daylilies expecting to see Edna’s petite figure. But the man was alone.
He handed Pauline the smaller bouquet. They exchanged a few words, and Pauline squeezed his hand. Right then I knew. Edna was not coming—would never come again. Edna was gone.
Grief knocked the air out of my lungs. I feared the worst. As he walked over to me, I mentally willed him away. Don’t come over, my mind screamed, I don’t want to know. He ignored my unspoken request to leave me with my physical pain and keep my heart intact. As he approached I saw unremitting sorrow in his eyes. Jacob’s son
wordlessly placed the bouquet of orange daylilies on my tray table. I barely suppressed a sob, or maybe I didn’t. Tears spilled out.
“I’m Edna and Jacob’s son, Daniel. Dad asked me to come by. Mom didn’t wake up this morning.”
After pausing to compose himself, he added, “she left us last night.” I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say, and even if I could find the words, I couldn’t utter them. He sat next to me and we held each other’s hands. Finally, I whispered, “I miss her already.” Daniel’s shoulders convulsed but no sound came out. I imagine he was afraid if he let it out, he wouldn’t be able to stop the grief from consuming him.
We sat like that for minutes, or hours.
After a long stretch of silence, I said, “I didn’t even know Edna was sick. She never mentioned anything.”
“Mom had breast cancer,” Daniel said.
“She was a breast cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed 15 years ago, and went through all the chemo and radiation. It was hell. That’s why she volunteers. She understands.”
“She never said anything.”
“She didn’t think it would help. But when the cancer came back a few months ago, she decided not to go through the chemo again. She took a turn for the worse last week.”
I was shocked.
“We would be honored if you would sit shiva with us tomorrow evening, or one evening in the next six days.”
“Thank you for the invitation. I will be there if I’m up to it. I pray I am.” As it turned out, the third drug wasn’t as bad as the first two. Though I wasn’t feeling well, I went to Jacob and Edna’s house the following day. I checked in with a Jewish friend and learned what to do, and not do: don’t knock or ring the doorbell, do bring food, don’t talk loudly or begin a conversation, do respond to conversation and talk about the deceased. They were not strictly kosher, so I could bring food I knew how to cook.
I drove myself to the house, and sat in the car composing myself. Grabbing the tray of fried chicken and collard greens, I walked up to the front door. Without knocking or ringing the doorbell, I softly opened the door and let myself in. The lights were low, there were four or five people sitting in the living room, on the couch and adjacent chairs. Jacob was sitting on a small stool, lower than everyone else. A large mirror in the living room was covered with a sheet.
Jacob didn’t rise, but he nodded to me, and his son Daniel came and shook my hand and took the offered food. I joined the group assembled in the living room and listened, and waited. The pain was resurfacing, as the drugs wore off. I couldn’t stay long. They began to share about Edna’s wise sayings and I added my favorite. “If you’re alive, you’re living and you should act like it.”
Edna followed her own advice.
Katie Sweeting is an Associate Professor of English at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, NJ, and coordinates the English major. She teaches diverse classes, such as Composition 1 and 2, World Literature, British Literature, Speech, and Religions of the West. She has led several workshops for faculty on backward design and online teaching strategies. Katie Sweeting is a 2020-2021 Fulbright scholar to India.
She co-wrote The Power of a City at Prayer, published by InterVarsity Press, and has written a historical novel, Remnant, about the sister and daughter of Olaudah Equiano.