A neighbor who lived next door to my parents used to babysit me from time to time while I was growing up. Not recently, obviously. Her name was Gladys, and she was originally from England. I adored her, and when I got older, we watched every horror movie we could get our hands on. Sometime after I graduated from college—she moved up north to live with her daughter—I called her up and she dropped the bomb “Oh, I’ve got cancer.” Gladys lived a couple of months longer, and then she was gone. We were supposed to travel to London together, but never did.
Gladys has been on my mind lately, especially after this past week. I’m in the process of revamping an old project I worked on with someone. Let’s call this someone Lillian. I’ve known Lillian since 1984, and she’s around twenty-five years older than I am. She’s not had a terrific life at times, starting with an abusive ex-husband. Lillian remains timid of computers because her first husband used to call her an idiot every time she asked him a question while she learned how to use one. And then her second husband—a much, much nicer, gentler man—passed away after a couple years of marriage.
Lillian and I have had our differences, especially regarding the project we worked on together two decades earlier. Believe me, the differences seemed like a big deal at the time and revolved around a lack of acknowledgement of contributions made to the project. The project came to life because of her passion for it, but I felt slighted due to my perception of my involvement being made to sound as more of an afterthought. The situation was a bit complicated and I’m being a bit vague out of respect for her privacy.
We had some bad blood between us, though we did communicate from time to time when we needed to or just to touch base. Relations improved between us the last couple of years, probably because I’ve learned to let more things roll off my back than I ever have before, plus I recognize just because something happens a certain way doesn’t mean it’s what the person intended to have happen. There’s a gray area called benefit of the doubt.
So, I called Lillian last week to give her an update on where the project stood, and she mentioned she’d been to see some doctors for a couple of health issues she’s been dealing with. They told her she has three to eighteen months to live. Yes, cancer.
I imagine the only person more surprised to hear the news was Lillian. And her children. Grandchildren too. I remember when the doctor told my father-in-law he had three years to live. The feeling is one of slowly sinking in quicksand, and that’s just how I felt. Certainly, he felt worse. Lillian’s news is a sucker punch too. She said the doctor told her “You want to get your affairs in order.” Sounds a bit like get your luggage packed because checkout time at the hotel is at 11, unless you request a late checkout, which is 2.
The doctor also suggested lessening any stress she has.
I think this is wise. Who wants to deal with stress when it comes down to this? Between now and then won’t be easy for Lillian, and I’m bound and determined not to be part of the stress she needs to avoid or purge. As much as we might have grrrrrrd at each other over the years, never, I think, did it occur to us there’d be a time we’d be looking at the sunset, and knowing one of us might not be there too many more. This is a strange feeling too.
One more person to leave the party early. One more legacy preparing to be left behind. One more voice about to join the chorus called the past.
Three to eighteen. They used to just be numbers.