As her friend fell sick while she fell in love, she realized we don’t get to choose our miracles or our malignancies.
BY CYNDY CENDAGORTA
MY COFFEE SPILLED as my hands shook. I took a deep breath and made eye contact with John across the table. I knew I had to show up for Shannon this morning. He knew it too. She deserved that. Cancer was eating her body. It had starting in her breasts, and now her lungs were filling with fluid. Stage 4 malignancies are fearless and undaunted, unlike me.
She had been holding back the tide of “her cancer”, as she called it, until now. That morning she sent a message saying, “please come, I need you”. It was terrifying to be needed like that, but I wanted to be there, more than anything.
Shannon had a soul larger than her loud bangles and bracelets and her wild mess of strawberry hair. She was generous and kind, a tractor beam of energy that pulled people to her. I wasn’t the only one who saw her this way; she had a minor following in Las Vegas, a cult of personality that adored her. Time with her felt urgent and essential. I wanted to soak up what was left of her magic before the cancer took her. She was my best friend since I met her five years before working on a community project and we began to share our triumphs, losses and lives over drinks and coffee and afternoons laughing on the couch together.
Sitting across from John over breakfast in the diner that morning, I imagined Shannon hooked to a machine, swallowing not air but phlegm, smelling of cancer and death and I started to panic. I started shaking harder, avoiding eye contact with John. I thought if I looked into his eyes, which I felt searching mine, he would strip me of my armor, and I would lose control. He looked at me for a moment longer, then reached into his suit pocket and picked up his phone.
“Janet, cancel my meetings for the rest of the day. Yes, all of them. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He hung up, set the phone on the table, and reached his hands out to my wrists. Holding me steady, he said, “We’ll go together to the hospital. I’ve got you.”
I started to protest and tell him I was fine. He said he knew I was, but he was driving me to the hospital anyway. I didn’t know I needed him to go. But he did. He was like that. He knew what I wanted before I did. The miracle of that overwhelms me, years later. I wonder now if it was love or my desire for a miracle of any kind that caused me to draft him as my savior when Shannon was the one who needed it most. But we don’t get to choose our miracles or malignancies, or who we love and when. They choose us.
I’d met John three years prior, at a business meeting with Shannon about a community initiative she was leading for the County, where she worked. He was the manager of a charitable foundation and an attorney. I arrived late to the meeting and joined the group as they were unwrapping sandwiches from a local deli. I rushed in, sat down, and he offered me half of his order. Later he would laugh at how I took him up on it, how I reached across the table for what he’d offered. “Marvelous,” he’d say, “and brazen,” as though I was a woman who took what she wanted and wouldn’t apologize for it. I’d thought he meant it; that the offer —that he—was authentic. That belief would die later, like Shannon.
Shannon wasn’t sure about John from the start and called him a “typical lawyer.” She said he was too smooth for Las Vegas, as if that were even possible, but she also said he had a kindness to him that she thought was real. She called him “interesting.” I thought he was perfect in his tailored suits, shined up shoes and quick come-backs. He was smart, funny, and a most attentive listener. We hit it off and over time we became the best of friends. He was my confidante, my source of laughter, my reprieve from the anxiety I live with daily, with his attention and his humor. I began to need him. A text here, a call there, a well-placed joke, a hand on my arm. My relationship with John was subclinical, a low-grade fever, until it wasn’t sub-anything anymore. I needed him to prop me up, to fix what hurt, until that dependence started to eat me alive, as aggressively claiming my independence as the cancer was claiming Shannon.
By the time we went to see Shannon in the hospital, John and I told each other we loved each other every day. Like siblings, we said, because that would be acceptable to our spouses, or it should be if they really understood us, right? I told him there would be no sex. He said he understood that, although he needed me in his life but, he said, all he really needed was my brain. My brain would be enough.
I felt comfortable with him, acceptable, like nothing I had done, or could do, would mar me in his eyes. This is love, I remember thinking. Maybe a little unconventional, but healthy all the same. I hadn’t done healthy before. I thought this was progress.
The nurse gave us lime green gauzy gowns and hats to match, and we put covers on our shoes before we entered Shannon’s room.
“Her immune system is vulnerable,” she told us. I remember thinking, “aren’t we all?”
Shannon was propped in bed, bald head tilting to the side. Wires and electrodes peeked through her gown. When I hugged her, she held me so tight that it was painful. I felt her fingers digging into me, holding on. I wanted to take her with me like a scarab on my back, out of this hospital and into the sun, so she could live off me, drink my blood, survive. I stroked her arm, damp and cool, despite the sweat, and told her little things I had tucked away in my memory for her, bits of the world outside.
John put his hand on my back and came to sit by Shannon. Though they had never been close, they had an easy comraderie at this point, and she enjoyed her time with him more and more as she got sicker. He was a generous court jester in the crumbling kingdom of electrodes, IV’s and hospital gowns she lived in now, and he made her smile. She ran her hands self-consciously over her bald head. He took her hand, looked into her eyes, and reassured her that she was beautiful. He was luminous in that moment, smelling of sex and power, ministering to her in his Zenni and his Prada, giving her what she needed- acceptance, laughter, friendship. This moment is seared into my memory. Why this moment? I will try to answer this for years to come because I am still there, in the light-filled hospital room with the two of them, in the sweat and the smell of “her cancer,” in the warmth of her soulful eyes and his attention. I am there, with his cologne on my hands and his thigh warming mine as we sat close on Shannon’s plastic-sheeted bed, trying to crowd out the darkness that was coming. He saved me that day, a fairy tale in the flesh when flesh was the problem. He was everything I wanted and needed him to be for her, for me. She was everything and more. We were well and whole together.
We had both been asked to speak at her funeral, and some of her friends questioned why he was speaking when they hadn’t been that close for very long. I knew though, that during her illness, he had shown up for her in a way that truly touched her, and the family was honoring that. John held my arm, loosely at the elbow, as I climbed the church stairs, his beautiful wife trailing behind us. My husband wasn’t there. He had a business call he had to take, he said, for which I would punish him mercilessly for years.
“You weren’t there!” I would scream at him when we fought. “She was dying, she was choking, she couldn’t breathe, and you weren’t there.”
I thought he owed me more than that as my best friend was dying. He owed me that arm on the small of my back, that hand on the end of my elbow. She died and he didn’t even get off the phone. I couldn’t bear it. But then again, I didn’t have to, because John was there for me.
The church was packed, over 400 people crying, loving, laughing and holding each other. Love, after death. Love in a crowd, another miracle. The fact I made it through the eulogy without crying was my gift to her from the steeliest part of my soul. I thought that was how she would do it. She would muster that for me, for a loved one, and so I did it, too.
If I wanted to be like her, it was for what she inspired in people, what she inspired in me. It was because when the priest held her hand in the hospital and asked her if she was afraid of death, she said, “I am ready.” I knew I would never be that fearless. I am the girl who shakes in the diner with her coffee. I am the girl who only shows her authentic self in the confines of a platonic relationship with a man who is not hers. I am the girl who doesn’t cry at the funeral, not because I am not breaking, but because I am terrified that I won’t ever stop. She told me once, holding my hand, that she saw what I was doing with John, the dependence, the line between friendship and romance that I was teetering on with him.
“It’s never been sexual”, I told her.
“Oh honey, you don’t have to explain. I know what it is”, she said to me. She saw through me but didn’t judge. She didn’t have to say anything else though. I knew she thought my relationship with him was problematic, but she also knew I needed him, so she left it there.
After Shannon died John began a relationship with woman sicker than me, sicker than Shannon if the new woman’s mental health counted. He eventually divorced his wife and moved in with her. Once he had the new woman, he just disappeared from my life. He no longer called me his sister, and he told me that he didn’t love me anymore, as a friend or otherwise. I could see in his eyes that I was lost to him. When I tried to connect with him, our conversations were shorter and he had a haughty, almost callous way of moving things along quickly, as if I were something to endure, not someone enduring in his life, the best friends he had promised we would always be. Eventually, he stopped calling. Though slow to understand initially, I stopped calling him as well. The ending of our relationship was more of a knowing than anything. I knew it was over, but I didn’t know why. I still don’t. Maybe I needed him too much? Maybe in all my grief the brain he so valued wasn’t interesting anymore?
Losing him and Shannon in the same year almost destroyed me. I swear I left a part of me in that church- an elbow, a spot on the small of my back, a lobe of my heart, a place he touched me that has never been touched again. I try to but I can’t hate him for any of this. I still see him, alight and tall as the sky, bending over me and Shannon, showing up, holding her hand, touching me, healing us both. I see him sitting with us in our grief and acceptance, ignoring the clock, being what I needed most when Shannon most needed me. That was love, I tell myself. It was malignant in the end, but it was love.
About the Author
Cyndy Cendagorta is working on a collection of short stories about broken things, including bodies, children, faith and love. She runs a policy consulting company in Reno, Nevada that specializes in social innovation, and is a special needs mother and advocate. She holds an MA in Political Science from Washington State University and is a past Women’s Research and Education Institute Fellow. Her work can be found in Cagibi, The Spectacle, Salmon Creek Journal and Please See Me. She lives in Reno, NV, with her husband and three children.