Hollie Grimaldi Flores: Not today
Like many of you, I love a person who is living with cancer. Living with cancer is the preferred phrase in our circle – fighting cancer, battling cancer, or receiving treatment for cancer are other ways of acknowledging the condition, but we don’t say “dying of cancer” … at least, not today.
It’s been six years since I received a call telling me to get to the hospital. My friend had been having troubling swallowing for a couple of months and then one day, he couldn’t see. A trip to the ER and some tests followed. The diagnosis was not a good one: Stage 4 Cancer (meaning tumors and markers in multiple locations); a six-month prognosis. I sat on the end of his hospital bed with other friends also sitting vigil. He said he was not ready to die. My recollection was turning to him to say, “Well, you aren’t dying today.” And with that, I climbed down to the banks of that river known as denial and stayed put.
His recollection is different. He remembers coming home from the hospital and wallowing in self-pity and fear, barely able to get out of bed. He and his wife allowed themselves some time to grieve and then he says he woke up one day and said, “I might be dying, but I am not dying today.” He made the decision to get back to living.
Either memory, his or mine, and likely a few others, have led us to the “not today” slogan we call on when things take a turn for the not so great. When treatments stop working or energy is lagging or the bright side is hard to find, we can focus on the present, take it one day at a time and be grateful for another day of living.
At this point we’ve known each other for over 20 years. Our children brought us together when they became fast friends in daycare. Long after the kids stopped wanting to hang out, we dragged them on vacations and playdates and other activities because by then we had become family. I am not good at losing people I love. I tend to hold on tight.
He has been the topic of a column or two in the past, always unnamed, but he would occasionally recognize a familiar tale about him (like the time he was first diagnosed and I wrote about it) or a family member and asked me to refrain from sharing personal details without permission. I have honored his request, so I was a little surprised when he asked if we could meet because he had something for me to write about.
He’s been beating the odds for a while now and thinks he’s been living with the disease long enough to have some wisdom to impart on those of us who have no idea how receiving a terminal diagnosis might feel. I know I don’t know anything about what hearing those words might do to me. I also know I sometimes don’t know what to say to others who have it, so as a public service, from someone who does understand, here are a few key points he would like you to consider:
Don’t compare your cancer. “I had a little melanoma and my doctor removed it, just like that,” or a hundred other cancer stories are not helpful. Your friend’s cancer experience, your relative’s cancer experience, your friend’s relative’s cancer experience, is not the same as another person’s cancer experience.
Don’t suggest treatments that worked for a friend or relative. Everyone wants to be an expert when it comes to what will work for my friend’s cancer. Have you tried…? Or don’t try… are a) none of your business and b) not helpful. Each person who receives a diagnosis needs to do their own soul searching and research. You may think you would never go through or try any number of options, but until you are staring cancer in the face, you really do not know.
Don’t be disappointed when they outlive the prognosis. It sounds incredulous, but there have been instances of folk who seem put out. “I thought you were dying, man. You don’t look sick.” Should he be apologizing here?
Don’t say, “everyone is going to die.” I admit to being guilty of making this statement. My friend says there is a huge difference between knowing we are all going to die someday and knowing something in your body is actively killing you or receiving an end date from your oncologist.
Don’t be afraid to talk about it or ask how things are going, but don’t let it be the only topic.
And to that point, I’m sure there are more pieces of advice he could offer but we got distracted as we so often do when we are together and ended up talking about other important issues of the day, which leads me to things you can do when you have a loved one living with a terminal disease.
Do the things you enjoy doing together, now. Say yes to invitations. Buy them flowers. Say what you have been meaning to say. Take the trip. Book the hotel. Buy the tickets. Go on walks. Watch sunrises and sunsets. Drink the good wine. Take the drive. Sit in stillness. Be present. Live like you are dying!
I haven’t had a chance to tell him yet, but I decided to look up the “hashtag not today” on the web and found the phrase was around before either of us had our epiphany around it. It turns up in the much-acclaimed series “Game of Thrones,” and throughout the series where the saying gained attention, beginning in Season 1, in 2011 when master swordfighter Syrio Forel said to Arya Stark during her training. “There is only one God, and His name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘not today’.
Those folks were onto something.
Hollie Grimaldi Flores is a Nevada County resident and freelance writer for hire, as well as a podcaster at HollieGrams. You can hear her episodes at https://www.buzzsprout.com/1332253. She can be reached at email@example.com
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