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The Impact of Showing Up…or Not

by Stephen HeavisideSurvivorFebruary 7, 2021View more posts from Stephen Heaviside

Forgiveness is a virtue. I’ve always been a pretty loyal and forgiving person – often at the expense of my own personal growth and mental health, as I have extended the benefit of the doubt to many people, jobs and situations that didn’t truly deserve it.

When I went through chemotherapy, my regimen was fairly intense. I was getting infused 5 days in a row for a couple of weeks (with weekend breaks) and then enjoying a fun one-day infusion week to round out the 3 week cycle. This meant that I was inpatient for a lot of my chemo. One of my fun one-day infusion weeks became a lot less fun when I came down with neutropenic fever and spent an extra 5 days in a different hospital, being administered Neupogen shots while I recovered and chipped away at the day, binging Seinfeld episodes. That added an extra 5 days in the hospital that I hadn’t planned on.

At that time, I had three people I considered my best friends. One of them was a high school teacher who had moved up to Seattle with his wife, so the odds of him paying me a visit during treatment weren’t great and that was perfectly understandable, given the circumstances. But, the other two guys lived locally and had been longtime friends that had joked and talked with me through a bunch of other lesser life changes.

Those two friends visited me in the hospital for a combined grand total of … once. It’s hard to put myself in my 2014 brain and remember how I processed this. Other friends and family visited. I was fortunate to know many great human beings that came out to see me. And I considered that, you know, the hospital WAS kind of a drive for them. They both had jobs and were busy. They didn’t know what to say to me. They were freaked out to see their friend looking so sickly, pale and bald. They knew Stephen in a certain context and this “Moby on his deathbed” edition of Stephen was probably hard to take in. Like I said, I’ve always been a forgiving, loyal person. But the math really started bothering me. Out of 45 chances to visit a longtime friend with a serious illness in the hospital? And all the days in between, where I spent recovering at home? There was one visit between them and I know I had chemo brain and all – but I’m not exaggerating when I say I don’t remember there being any substantial text conversations either.

During this time, I also received a Facebook message from my ex-girlfriend who had broken up with me just prior to my diagnosis. The message began: “p.s. I know u have cancer and all and I’m sorry” and it ended with “we aren’t doing a fundraiser, at least I’m not and I won’t be a part of it. You’re an adult, you can figure it out.” I racked my brain for reasons why someone would send such destructive, cold words to me and what I had done to deserve this. Three of the people closest to me when December 2013 began were becoming ghosts of Christmas past that now haunted me with feelings of worthlessness and regret a mere five months later.

The friend who lived in Seattle? He flew down to drive me to the hospital on one of my fun one-day infusion weeks and bought me candy. (Dum-Dum lollipops, if I recall correctly.) He and his wife flew down again two months later as a surprise, at a “Steve’s Cancer Free” party that my family threw for me. So a married man struggling to make ends meet, who lived in another state, managed to see me just as often as two friends who lived within a half hour of me. If cancer was putting luminol on everything and revealing peoples’ true colors, this was a true-blue hue of friendship. We still talk all the time. We’ve had long talks about serious health scares and ridiculous music trivia; throughout my cancer survivorship and throughout his divorce and move across the country; and now through a pandemic; we’ve tried to lighten the mood by trading a million inside jokes. He usually ends every call with “I love you, man”.

Cancer melted away my old notions of a lot of things. Friendships that once seemed important were revealed to be trivial. People I had never known in my life or had only a surface-level relationship with beforehand, suddenly became pivotal. This is an ongoing process that continues to disappoint and surprise.  I’m often asked “What advice do you have for friends and family of a cancer patient?” This question causes a flash flood of thoughts to barrel down my brain. But, when I sort through the detritus, what I’m left with is simply: “Show up”. Now, show up can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. You don’t want people to literally just show up, stand there looking awkward for 10 minutes and then leave, with “visited cancer friend!” checked off on their daily to-do list. And being present in someone’s life doesn’t have to be physical. Being present for someone – in this day and age especially- can often mean text check-ins, Instagram DMs, Zoom dance parties, memes on Messenger or amusing gifs on Discord. It can mean watching true crime documentaries and wrestling matches from a more innocent time and staying the night in the hospital with you, like my brother-in-law did one night to distract me from my broken heart and my foggy brain. It can mean someone sending you a cute card in the mail. It can be an uplifting e-mail or a recommendation on a book you’d probably love.

I have no anger for my former friends because I had specific expectations of them or expected them to fix anything for me. They moved on. And so eventually I had to, as well. I was just disappointed that they stopped showing up and being present, when it mattered more than ever. And to all the people that have shown up; from the family members and friends who were there for the post-diagnosis mass texts; to the people I’ve met virtually in this past year; you have made it more tolerable and more joyful to get up every morning, and show up for myself. And to help me try my best to show up for others in the midst of the darkest and loneliest chapters of their life story.

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