Weekend Sandwich, Part II: Cancer

No, not me. Thank God.

Had this weekend been a sandwich, the first part of this two-part post would have made for the comical filling. (Sausage is funny, right?) The bread on both ends, however, was a bit more sobering. I was told by my dentist that she could no longer continue working because she had been diagnosed with cancer.

Sobering news, indeed.

Until I got to college, cancer wasn’t really something I ran into all that often. In fact, the only time I actually remember meeting someone with cancer before then was when I played a small benefit concert with an orchestra in Tampa. We were playing at the Shriners’ Children’s Hospital, and after the concert I got the chance to meet a few of the patients. I remember meeting one of the patients, a 9 year old girl who was there with her family. She was a Hispanic girl — Puerto Rican, if I remember correctly — with black hair down to her shoulders, wearing a white sailor-style hat and pajamas. The girl was undergoing therapy for leukemia (I think), but that night you wouldn’t have known it: she and her family were all smiles, and her playfulness was only limited by her condition and treatment, both of which kept her pretty much strictly in bed. (She wasn’t laying down, but didn’t do much more than sit up on the edge of the bed.)

Not having really been around anyone with cancer before, I guess I didn’t know how I was supposed to act. It didn’t really matter, since after a concert like that I was in full entertainer mode, meaning that my sole purpose for existing at that point and time was to bring some level of comfort and joy to someone else, something I usually found rather easy to do whenever I had a violin in my hands. I talked to the girl as I would have anyone else, which was just as well, since I’m sure she spent the rest of her life being treated “different.” I played little songs for her and let her try out the violin, both of which kept her happy and laughing. Her family was very obviously pleased. The only awkward moment (and the event which most sticks in my mind) came when we were taking a picture. Trying to be cute, I asked her if I could put on her hat. As soon as I touched it, her look went from happy to scared, and she quickly grabbed at the hat. Her dad lightly touched my hand to stop me. He looked at me, shook his head, deftly pointed towards his own head and just said “Ella no…” (“She, uhm… doesn’t…”), indicating that she had been losing her hair. It was at this point that I began to better understand what was going on.

We took the picture and a few minutes later, I walked out of there knowing that I had made someone’s life better, if at least just for one night. I was supposed to keep in touch, but — as has been the pattern all throughout my life — I didn’t, and I let what could have been one of the most enlightening experiences in my life go by the wayside. Honestly, I eventually forgot about the whole incident, for the most part. I would think about that girl and her family once in a while, but never for more than the span of a fleeting thought, at most a few seconds. That is, until I heard about Keith.

When I first met 4Kings I was just starting out in college. I had discovered chat rooms, and not a day would go by that I wouldn’t spend at least some time there. (www.Chatting.com, I believe it was. Haven’t been there since 1999, at least.) It wasn’t long before she and I had become friends (and eventually more, though that didn’t last). During that time she had told me about her friend, Keith, a 16-year old guy who had been diagnosed with leukemia sometime back. She told me of how one day, when he was about 14-ish, Keith started noticing bruises on his legs. His parents took him to the doctor and, after much poking and prodding, the diagnosis came out. The leukemia later spread and developed into brain cancer.

Being a music composition major, I decided it would be fitting for me to write him (and 4Kings) a song. (It was later titled “For K—“.) After all, this guy’s time was running out: he wanted nothing more than to experience as much of life as was possible. Figuring that not many people get orchestra pieces written for them, I thought this would be one hell of a thrill for him. After a couple of weeks spent writing it, I was able to scrounge up a string quartet to play the piece. There were much better players than I at the school, so I decided to not do any of the performing myself, instead choosing to conduct. (In retrospect, this was a bad idea. I sucked as a conductor.)

During rehearsals the piece sounded generally OK. The only real weakness was the first violinist, who apparently hadn’t really practiced the piece and was obviously lackadaisical about the whole thing. I still believed she was good enough to pull it off, so I didn’t really question her about it. I wish I had. At the piece’s premiere, a concert which would be recorded and sent to Keith himself (along with the score), that violinist got lost about half way through the piece. Since most of the main melodies revolved around her part, that meant that the piece was ruined.

That concert was supposed to be special in a couple of ways. First, a group of professional comporsers had come to the university and were in the audience for the concert, in essence grading the performances. Second, it was my first real performance piece (as opposed to the fantasias I had written and performed during my high schoo years). When the piece was ruined I was ticked. Embarased, sure, but not really. It didn’t matter that professional composers from out of town were at that concert listening: bad performances happen, it’s a fact of life. As much as I wanted to impress them, I was mad because I wanted more than anything to have that recording for Keith.

After the concert, the group could see my disappointment, and the group — save for that violinist — came up to me and offered to re-record the piece. We scheduled the recording for a the following week (after midterms), and I started practicing the first violin part. “If you want something done right…” I remember thinking.

Not quite a week later — on a Thursday, if I remember correctly — I got news from 4Kings that Keith had died. He was at his home with his parents, went to sleep one night and never woke up.

I don’t know whether the recording would have gotten to him on time (although I had planned to next-day the tape to him, which would have been more than enough time), but I was furious. Not that he died — for that I was sad, in sympathy to 4Kings — but that his chance to listen to that piece, written and performed for him, had been robbed by a lazy violinist. During the practice sessions I had tried to explain the situation to the group, but even then she decided not to take it seriously. After getting the news I told the performers not to worry about it; it was too late. I tanked them for their patience and their efforts and put the piece away. I also spoke to the violinist, told her what happened. I sarcastically thanked her — for robbing both Keith and I of this last opportunity — then told her in no uncertain terms that I would never again work with her. It took me a long time to forgive her and to this day, although I have forgiven her for what she did (or didn’t do), it still stings to think about that whole situation.

As the years have come and gone I’ve heard of too many other cases around me to recount, but they were usually scattered. My mom went through a cancer scare and my uncle in Puerto Rico is going to one now. Still, I guess what really got me thinking were the two announcements I received this weekend, one on Friday and one on Monday.

The first was from one of my bosses within the company at which I work. This guy is someone who most people would agree is the picture of almost-perfect health, who no one would ever think — well now, that’s too familiar of a statement. Although this one put me in shock for a couple of days it was a phone call I received Monday which really put things in perspective.

Recently I’ve been going through a rather complicated and drawn out root canal procedure. The reason it has been so drawn out is because the most recent dentist appointments, those I had set up over the past month or so, have been cancelled. Both times I was told that the dentist was sick, and that I would have to reschedule. The latest appointment was actually set for today, June 13, at 10:30am. Yet, this pat Saturday I had received a letter from the dentist informing me that she would no longer be able to take patients due to a medical condition, and that I should call the office and re-schedule for another doctor and time.

By that time I knew something was definitely wrong and, to be honest, I was already guessing it probably had something to do with cancer. Monday, the dentist called to tell me of the situation directly (an unprecedented move), when I heard something I never thought I would hear. As she started by telling me that she would not be able to come back because she had been diagnosed with cancer, she broke down crying. She tried to keep a professional tone, but to no avail. This was her, in one of her most painful moments going touching the core of the human condition. Not being able to think about anything, I just kind of stayed quiet and let her go through what she had to and let her get it out of her system. Honestly, I felt both helpless and selfish, but I really didn’t know what to do! It was all I could do to just listen. I dared not say anything. I just listened.

I can’t tell you how strange a feeling this was for me. I can’t explain how odd it is to listen to someone like a doctor or a dentist, someone who’s just not supposed to go through this kind of thing, break down crying on the phone. That definitely qualifies as one of the stranger moments in my life, and probably one of the most memorable. Not because of the words — most of them involved molars and millimeters anyway — but because of the pure fear I heard in her voice. I had never in my life heard fear that raw, that honest. Never did I expect to hear it from someone who’s essentially a familiar stranger, someone who you can’t help but see as strong. Although that type of fear is something I’ve gone through — thanks to a couple of extremely serious medical scares, none of which I would ever wish upon even my enemies — never did I think I would hear it from someone in her position.

I’ll end it here. Frankly, I can’t think of a good, philosophical ending, so I’ll just let you digest what you’ve read. If you would like to share some of your experiences, please share them. Some of us may be able to gain a little wisdom from your words, some of us may be be able to muster a little courage, and some of us may just be looking for hope during our own episodes in this funny thing we all call life.

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