The world first shifted on a late winter afternoon more than 40 years ago
In the cafeteria of a small college in Southern California, when my friend Tim looked out the window and said, “Oh, there’s Mary.”
I glanced up, expecting a different Mary, not Mary Northcutt. She was spending spring semester in England. But it was her, and when I saw her, I jumped up, raced through the crowded room, and sprinted around the perimeter of the building. When I reached her, I picked her up, and spun her round and round in my arms. By the time I set her down, her face flush with amazement and surprise, I realized the world had shifted on its axis, and my life was never going to be the same.
It took a few years for her to agree that she was the one for me, but once relented, and relocated to Michigan, bounded by Great Lakes and greater dreams, we pursued our careers, built our lives and raised two wonderful children. We were content. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was better than most. We were fulfilled, surrounded by friends. We grew complacent.
Then, the world shifted again
Irrevocably, when Mary went in for a routine colonoscopy and came out with Stage 4 Colorectal Cancer. Suddenly the life we had constructed was over. We were in others’ hands now. We had cleared customs and entered Cancer Land. In an instant we lost control of our lives. We went where we were told to go, and did what we were told to do.
Mary underwent two weeks of tests, and she flunked everyone of them. Then came game-planning treatments and surgeries. Early in the process, knowing we were lost in the maze, we decided to stop apologizing to each other, to stop crying, and most of all, to stop trying to control something that was out of our hands. They gave her a year to live, she decided to take six. We decided to accept cancer, and then we decided to laugh at cancer.
“Playing the cancer card” became an inside joke for us.
Mary survived two serious surgeries, and underwent almost constant chemotherapy and radiation for the next six years. She only stopped taking it when they stopped giving it, and they only stopped giving it when there was nothing left we hadn’t tried, and nothing left that worked.
Then started the process of learning how to die. Even then, her good humor remained intact, even down to visiting the funeral home to pick out her coffin. When, all matters decided, visitor cards selected, the format for the visitation, the process for transport to the church, when all was said and done, Mary did what she always did after a successful shopping trip. She mimed applause and said, “Yay.” The funeral home representative nearly fell out of her chair.
We learned many valuable life lessons during those six years.
Probably the main one was to realize cancer isn’t just a way to die, it is a way to live. We learned how to recognize friendship, and discovered often our closest friends weren’t necessarily the people we saw most frequently. They weren’t necessarily the ones we went out to dinner with. Sometimes they were people we hadn’t seen in years. Old classmates, companions from former lives spent in different cities, people who lacked proximity, proved themselves to be so much more valuable than many of our quotidian associates. It wasn’t that we rejected friends or turned down support, but we took it when it was there, and learned to accept assistance.
People respond in different ways when they learn you have cancer.
Some change their tone of voice. They speak more slowly, possibly in louder tones, as if because you are damaged you are somehow diminished. There were other people, some good friends, who couldn’t face it. They didn’t know what to say or how to say it. They couldn’t ignore the cancer because it was in your face, but they couldn’t speak to it either. So they ran away. And we let them go.
I didn’t judge them because I had been one of them. It is a special kind of failure when you fail to be a friend as someone dies, because you will never, ever have the chance to make it up to them. Maybe that’s why I stepped up with Mary, aside from our more than thirty years together. Maybe I was trying to make it up to them.
One thing I did for those absent friends, and for those who were present as well, was to send out periodic updates which were more than updates on her treatments, but stories about the life we were leading and the triumphant way we greeted each day, no how painfully that day began, or how hard it would become before it was finished. I did it in part to spare them the humiliation which was etched upon their faces when they finally mustered the courage to ask me, “How’s Mary doing?”
Mary was doing just fine. We discovered value in the ordinary.
Sunsets became more valuable, more intense. When she was up to it we savored good meals and great wines, and planned the winery we would eventually open, and worked in the vineyards we planted. We learned that when your days are numbered you must make every moment count.
In the end, when cancer knew it had won, it danced its victory dance, it took its victory lap, and it told Mary “You owe me five years, and I’m going to take them all in the next two weeks.” It was hard for me, and of course, much harder for her, but when she died she did so surrounded by family and people who had become so much more than friends. They had become integral parts of her life, and still, to this day, my life, too.
Michael Goodell was born on the east coast, raised on the west coast, and now lives on the third coast of the United States, beside the Great Lakes. The author of two novels, ZENITH RISING and REBOUND, he has published a memoir of his and his wife’s experience with cancer called THE WORLD SHIFTED. $1 from each copy sold goes to cancer research. He divides his time between Detroit and Leelanau County in Northern Michigan where he and his two adult children, Emily and Matthew grow grapes and sell wines at Amoritas Vineyards which was Mary Northcutt’s dream and continues as her legacy.