Tall, thin, pale, with a slightly puffy face, like many of us have in chemo, Kaylee was still an athlete. You could tell by her clothes. She looked at home and relaxed in a baseball cap and sportswear, as if the infusion of chemotherapy she was receiving didn’t really bother her. As if she might leave the room and go for a run afterward or a few rounds of tennis. Her peace filled the chemo center and pervaded it. Her presence is one of the only things I remember well in my own drugged haze, my introduction to cancer.
I had been diagnosed just a month before. Kaylee had been in the game for a while. Her family came and went around her as she reclined in her chair, chatting, praying, planning lunch and outings for the future. I had no idea of the progression of her disease, or even her last name, but I knew she was managing this with grace. I, by contrast, was spending my nights puking, crying and hallucinating in a borrowed bed far from home.
“It will be OK,” I can recall Kaylee’s father telling me as he sat next to his daughter.
He seemed certain. He was looking at both of us.
A lot of my memories of those days have been erased, and I can’t remember how I received Kaylee’s gift. It’s like it just appeared in my purse: a little pink and white card with a sweet message and a small medal encased in clear plastic—St. Peregrine, patron of cancer patients. Kaylee said she had one just like it, and she held it during her treatments to calm her nerves. She also enclosed her phone number.
I didn’t reach out to Kaylee for a long time. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was busy with chemo, radiation, surgery, and family of my own. Maybe it was because talking to other cancer sufferers is a little too “real.” You see yourself—your hopes, your fears, your weaknesses, your past and possibly, your future.
Kaylee had a spot of metastatic disease. I did not.
I did look for Kaylee each time I was in the chemo room. We exchanged greetings and updates, and sometime, in the late summer or early fall, we both found out we were NED: No Evidence of Disease. Then, I began texting her. She was excited to go back to her job and her exercise. I was going to return to being a stay-at-home-mom. Another round of cancer scans passed. I rejoiced. Kaylee did not. Her cancer had returned quickly and aggressively, she said, alarming our doctor, who referred her to clinical trials. Kaylee and I continued texting every few weeks, and I continued to receive updates that her health was declining. I wanted to meet her for a coffee, but the closest I ever got to reaching out was to pray for a miracle.
After my most recent round of scans, the doctor came in to high-five me. Cancer-free again. Six months now.
“How’s Kaylee doing?” I asked, imagining her still serenely plugging away at an important clinical trial, planning her next lunch with her Dad or walking in the park.
“Kaylee passed away,” he replied.
All my joys are bittersweet now, all my new friendships incomprehensible. Again and again, those I meet in the throes of cancer have reached out to make me feel better as they themselves plan and smile and suffer and die. I have attended more funerals in the past three months than I have in my entire life.
“Why do you do this to yourself?” someone asked me. “You have to find a balance between reaching out and getting too close.”
Why? Why do I do this to myself?
Because I want to be like Kaylee. I want to be Real.
In the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the Skin Horse said:
“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you …”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes, said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt …
It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time.”
And Mother Theresa also said:
“ Love, to be real, it must cost –it must hurt—it must empty us of self.”
Kaylee, enthroned in her chemo chair, had found that Real love, that Christ-like love, and it emanated from her in calm and kind words and pink and white note cards and suffering and grace. It touched everyone in her path; they could never remain the same. Now, Kaylee is enthroned with her God, and I can never remain the same. I still want to pray for the miracle, but that’s not enough. I want to have the coffee, make the call, send the card, go to the funeral. And if, in the process, I break my body, hopefully I will save my soul.
“Generally,” the Skin Horse said, “by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all … Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It last for always.”
Eternal rest grant unto Kaylee, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. In the goodness of your Mercy, may she rest in peace. Amen.