We had Christ and cancer in common. Talk about being yoked by the best and the worst in life!
A Friend Comes alongside
I met Judi at a weekday Mass in 1996. She stayed after Mass to pray, but accidentally overheard my whispered conversation in a nearby pew. Someone asked me about my newly diagnosed breast cancer. Before leaving, Judi approached me. With a lilting Hungarian accent, she inquired, “Are you the one with the breast cancer?” I answered yes, still getting used to the idea. Judi introduced herself as someone who had fought the disease years earlier. She simply wanted to show me the face of someone who survived this disease. It was a God-sent moment. Judi became hope incarnate to me.
I was 36 with a husband and three children, ages 3, 6, and 9. Judi had one 11-year-old, and three grown children. With grace, and good doctors, I would deal with the cancer, but my fears tore me up inside. Would I be there to raise my three children? Judi gave me my first lessons in dealing with my own mortality. She had fought her disease so she could finish bringing up her youngest. That was my goal too. Her spirit was formidable; I took note of her good counsel.
Sometimes friendships blossom where we least expect them like in foxholes. That echoes my relationship with Judi. I was in a battle, but lacked experience. As a cancer veteran, Judi helped me adjust my armor while pointing out weapons to fight my fear. She spoke about her own suffering and struggles with faith, what it means to deal with utter darkness and then choose to reach for the light. Walking me through that minefield, Judi was a one-woman support group and mentor rolled into one.
Months went by. My treatment and recovery period yielded an excellent prognosis. Conversations with Judi changed from cancer to other subjects. We had Christ and cancer in common, but slowly found more.
We both loved to write. I marveled at Judi’s prose and poetry, as English was her second language. Over the years, the busyness of family life and my job kept my writing sporadic at best. But she, ever the mentor, encouraged me to keep writing. Watching her still learning, still trying to perfect her craft, made me contemplate what things I might write when my children were older.
We both loved the water, on the beach or on a boat. We managed many lunch dates through the years, often ending up by the ocean. Judi loved to sail, finding tranquility on the waves. She often dreamed of moving to a coastal town.
We both loved books, often exchanging them as gifts. There was always a new title to recommend. Most of all, we loved the Scriptures, delighting to share our favorite verses.
A Friend Stays in Touch
We kept in touch even though our lives were in different orbits. She, the mature one, with grown children and grandchildren, and I, trying to maintain sanity as my children hurtled toward adolescence. Through it all, there was an unspoken understanding that we were there for each other. We were prayer buddies. We’d see each other at Mass, extending warm hugs and hellos. We sent email and cards, catching each other up. Our conversations were always in the present, not dwelling on our cancer pasts.
Judi always put her family first. I admired this. Family was what she talked most about. She was well-connected to her adult children, and they were truly devoted to her. Her youngest son, the boy that she prayed to see into manhood, is now halfway through college. Her three older children made her a grandmother eight times over, and she cherished this legacy. Having lived many places in Europe and North America, her home was her refuge, filled with books and classical music and where her mother tongue was spoken. Here you found her most content with her children gathered around.
A few years ago, Judi’s cancer returned. News of it hit me hard. This beautiful woman was about to suffer again. When I found out, I purchased a ring with “H-O-P-E” engraved on it. I wore it to remember to pray for Judi, and for the other people I knew with cancer. But mostly, it reminded me of the living hope that Christ extends to me, and that I must extend to others.
For Judi, there was more surgery and radiation therapy. Her cancer seemed to respond to treatment so she had once-a-week chemotherapy for almost five years. She never complained, but I noticed little things pain from sitting too long, careful menu choices, routine fatigue. Wigs came and went. There were unexpected broken bones. Somehow, she dealt with it. She just lived her life, despite it all.
A Friend Goes on ahead
After Christmas, Judi’s medical team revealed her remaining treatment options were limited. This wonderful woman, who shared with me her love of life, was now telling me to keep writing and to be happy, as though these might be her final instructions to me.
She struggled with the slow decline of her health, losing the ability to drive, the need for a cane, and the scheduled rituals of pain medicines. Then came stopping the chemotherapy altogether. No further treatment would be beneficial.
When Judi was no longer able to attend Mass, it became my privilege to take her the Holy Eucharist each week. This I could do for the woman who had served me so well. Together, we prayed with the daily Scriptures. She often shared profound thoughts about what she heard the Lord saying to her in the Word. One day after receiving her Lord in Holy Communion, she spontaneously burst into song! Her soul grew stronger as her body grew weaker.
There was less to say and more to savor during these times together. My dear old friend was mentoring me again, this time on how to die. She loved her loved ones, and she made good use of the sacraments all from the comfort of her bed. I could do so little for her now, other than to stand by and hold her hand. My last act of mercy was holding her glass as she sipped from a straw so she could swallow the tiny piece of the Host she had received so reverently even in her exhausted state. A few days later she slipped into a coma and died.
Exactly two days after Judi’s funeral, my medical team gave me the thumbs-up: ten years, cancer-free. Within the same week, Judi and I were both celebrating lives that were healed and cancer-free.
In the end, Judi gave me two valuable gifts: the courage to live my post-cancer life passionately, and the faith to see beyond the veil separating us from eternity: Christ truly awaits us. I hope one day to step through the gate of heaven and as part of that glorious reunion, I hope to see Judi’s smiling face, knowing that all we have in common is Christ.
©2006 Patricia W. Gohn
Pat Gohn is married to Bob and has three children. Known to her friends as “majoring in carpooling and minoring in theology,” she is currently pursuing a Master's in Theology. She lives in Massachusetts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her monthly column “Ordinary Time” appears at www.catholicmom.com.