The late afternoon was beautiful — sunny and warm. I decided to walk the 30-some blocks to get to Times Square. I was meeting an old friend there for an early dinner before we went to a preview of August Wilson’s play, Fences.
Walking there, I tried to see the world with new eyes.
I had just read an essay that had deeply shaken and inspired me. An Internet buddy, Christine Gross-Loh, had emailed the essay, which was written by a friend of hers. The author, Marie Pechet, is a 47-year-old woman from Cambridge, Massachusetts, a wife and mother of two young sons. The essay is about her determined search for fun for her children — joyous experiences they can all remember — while she lives with metastatic cancer. I haven’t read anything in years that affected me so profoundly.
Pechet and her sons go to a store to buy a planter for their deck the day she learns her cancer may have returned. The boys frolic in the store’s fountain, soaking their clothes. In the car, they strip off their clothes, laughing, and enjoy a “naked ride” home. In the months that follow, as Pechet undergoes surgeries, chemotherapy, and violent nausea from the chemo, she still tries to find lighthearted occasions for ski trips and Disney World visits for her sons.
She cites words from a children’s song that reflect what she’s trying to do. It isn’t what you’d expect, though. It’s from “Frosty, the Snowman”:
Frosty the Snowman
Knew the sun was hot that day
But he said let’s run and we’ll have some fun
Now, before I melt away….
Before I melt away. I kept hearing those words, mentally humming that melody, as I walked through the streets of New York. I thought of how fortunate my own life had been after my own cancer diagnosis in 1995, when my own children were 13 and 9. I thought of all the “extra” years I’d had, the graduations I’d attended, the trips I’d taken with our kids and my husband, the luxury of a life that had somehow extended with no further health problems, no complications. “It recedes into the past — eventually,” I tell friends who are going through cancer diagnoses and treatments. “If you’re lucky, you forget about it for days at a time.”
If you’re lucky, you forget. But you forget too damned much. You forget to notice life carefully enough, to be grateful for what you have. Even New York, which had dazzled me in the first days and weeks we were here, had become more routine to me. I was gradually failing to notice it closely enough.
So, I walked along, trying to see and feel it all. I watched the golden sunlight stretching through the tall buildings, the budding trees, the busy sidewalks. A middle-aged man guided his young daughter, who was wearing maroon angel wings, and loudly talking to him. An elderly man, patrician and erect, sported a bowler hat and velvet coat; who was he and where on earth was he going? At Columbus Circle, a young guy reclined on a couch someone had thrown out on the sidewalk, telling his friend, “You know what? I just got tired of the academic world.”
Closer to Times Square, the natural light merged with the artificial — the jumbo screens of faces and fashions and digital news. I recalled how fortunate I was to be meeting a dear friend from my Dallas days. I told her the story I’d just read and felt my eyes grow damp. After the play, I took the subway back to our apartment and told my husband about it, too.
What was it about that song, that familiar children’s song, as Marie Pechet had used it, that was so stark and compelling? It was simple and straightforward. It lacked illusions, but not hope. Most of all, it told a hard truth we all learn and forget and re-learn, over and over again, throughout our lives. Both life and death lie in those words. But, in the uncertain distance between them, we still have something.
God, I wish her well, this mother who’s searching for fun for herself and her family. And I’ll never hear that melody and those lyrics again without thinking of her.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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