Yesterday was the memorial service for my friend Gwen, who was part of my MBC support group. Gwen was just 38 and left behind a husband and two daughters. There is just no way to understand or explain why she got this disease, why no treatment ever worked, why someone with so much life would lose it so quickly.
Gwen and I clicked from the beginning and I learned so much from her. But the biggest lesson was definitely about bravery. She had a tattoo on her wrist with an arrow and the words “Be Brave.” At her service yesterday, there were temporary tattoos of this for everyone. To be honest, at first I didn’t understand or agree with all of these “bravery” references all over her Facebook page. I hate the battle/war metaphor we use for cancer. There are no winners, the fight was rigged from the start.
But what Gwen was talking about was not the bravery patients show when we continue treatments that suck. It’s not the bravery of tolerating pain or discomfort. It’s not battling to win against the unbeatable. Gwen was talking about the bravery of continuing to be open and loving and happy despite the cancer. She didn’t shut herself off from family and friends. Her example encouraged them to not shut themselves off from her, either. It’s not easy to stay close to someone with terminal cancer. People want to protect themselves from the inevitable pain of loss. But Gwen inspired the people in her life to continue to show up for her. To check in with her, to laugh with her, to share even more of themselves. That was how she would “be brave.”
The program at her memorial included something she wrote on Facebook last Autumn. It’s simple but so powerful:
Reminding myself this morning that bravery doesn’t mean you are without fear. It simply means that you find courage inside to keep on keeping on in spite of that fear. Cancer sucks. #bebrave
I’m going to try harder to follow Gwen’s example. To keep showing up for my own life and the lives of my friends. To reach out more. To take every opportunity to tell people that I love them. I’ve never been a very emotional person and I have an even harder time being demonstrative. So folks, be prepared. I’m going to hug you when I see you. I’m going to say “I love you” when we part. I’m going to email you and text you and ask you about what’s happening in your life. And I’m going to expect you to tell me. Just because I have cancer doesn’t mean that your problems aren’t important. So complain to me, ask me for sympathy, expect me to support you. I want to be there for you. I want to have closer friendships in my life. I want all of us to be brave enough to risk the pain that will inevitably come when we say goodbye someday. I want to be worth that to you, and to myself.
Thank you, Gwen. I’m going to do you proud. #bebrave