A few days later I replied, telling her I was so alarmed to receive your note—and am relieved your situation is improving. I told her I was thinking of her. Most of the rest of my fairly long email is, well, whining. I told her how hard I’d worked that first year back teaching; I told her how I hadn’t gotten much writing done as a result. Blah, blah, blah.
I ended with a promise: I will be a better correspondent now. I have been lousy. I think of you often, but I haven’t done a very good job of acting on those thoughts. Shame on me.
An hour later, Betty replied, thanking me for my note and thoughts. She added more about her situation: chemo every two weeks, and only part of the intruder is gone. I think about that term now—the intruder. It’s a perfect word for the arrival of death’s messenger.
And she added: It would be lovely to get back to the biography in anything but sporadic visits … but as my family & friends & doctors all point, first things first—
I wrote back a week later with news about my mother’s minor surgery and about my plan to return to teaching at WRA part-time rather than full. The offer was a good one. More whining, too, about the literary agency whose screeching silence was telling me that nothing was happening with my Shelley biography.
Betty replied briefly. She was continuing her treatments—most of my time involved in the healing process …
I replied the same day—was I really going to do better?—telling her that I had accepted the contract at WRA and that, yes, the agency’s silence had boded ill: They’d returned my manuscript, which, as far as I could tell, had not suffered from anyone’s actually having read it. I ended with something that from my position twelve years down the road seems surpassingly insensitive. I complained about a summer cold. How did this happen? I spent the entire school year in company with sniffling adolescents and suffered not a sniffle of my own. And now—two weeks after graduation—I’m hacking away …
Yes, a summer cold is awful, isn’t it? What a thing to write to someone struggling with lung cancer.
Many of us find such things difficult, though—knowing what to say to someone suffering from a dread disease. I obviously had trouble with it, and I know from conversations I’ve had about my own cancer that others have difficulty, too. I guess we must learn to accept the intended comfort rather than the words themselves. We learn to feel the balm of the sounds themselves, sounds borne by sorrow and hope. And we are grateful.