We always expect kindness from women. It's gladly given, easily received. But the most memorable instances of kindness I experienced during breast cancer came from the most unexpected source: men.
Breast Cancer Support from Men: Bearing Witness
There was a pattern I saw from the men, when they learned I had breast cancer; unlike women, who came right out and described their feelings, men seemed unable to say anything without varying degrees of difficulty, and then mostly obtusely. By their presence and actions, rather than by words, I knew they were trying to support me, to do or say or BE the right thing. They were bearing witness.
There was Bill, my son's soccer coach, seeing me waiting in the car for the soccer game to begin, the Sunday before my Tuesday mastectomy. '
Carter, the anesthesiologist who'd be there with me during surgery, standing beside my car window chatting, his usual smiling self.
Bill opens the door and gets into the car; Carter says goodbye and drifts away. Bill sits, and we talk about soccer as we watch the game. During several moments of silence he interjects that he and his wife, Nancy, will be thinking of me every moment of the day Tuesday; they’re with me all the way.
After I’ve heard my diagnosis, but before surgery, my boss, Jeff, just gives me a big, bright smile and asks how I’m feeling. Fine, Jeff, I say. Fine. He keeps smiling and looking at me before finally walking away.
John, a fishing buddy of my husband who’s battling prostate cancer himself, comes over to try to fix several recalcitrant problems with our various VCRs. We both gently open the subject of cancer. I determine he’s had his first chemo, and he’s scared because he feels so good, he thinks it’s not working. He determines I’m having a mastectomy next week. We barely know each other, but suddenly have a bond, a wavelength we’re on that’s inhabited by a “chosen few.” We wish each other well.
The next week, I go to John's electronics shop to borrow a battery charger for my camcorder. He inadvertently gives me the wrong one, a broken one in for repairs. I take it home, discover it doesn’t work, sigh, and go out to do errands. In my absence John discovers his mistake, and brings the right charger over to the house, following up with a phone message.
“CFMF: Chin up, fingers down, mind open, faith strong.” That’s the advice my co-worker Andrew gives me. He said it had worked as a mantra for him when he was going through some tough times, and I should say it to myself. He comes into my office, sits down, and tells me he’ll do anything he can to help. Then he goes out and buys me a $2,600 laptop, absolutely breaking his IT budget and despite my protestations that I won't need it.
Father Steve stops by our pew before Mass and asks us to stay after so he can pray with us. My son complains that he has to do a math project; I tell him it’ll wait; I know he’s embarrassed. After Mass, the church nearly empty, Father Steve gathers us in front of the baptismal font and the portrait of the Polish Virgin. He gets out the chrism oil, tells us to smell it – it smells good, like eucalyptus – and he rubs it all over our palms, one by one, praying all the time. Not some dainty anointing – this is a thorough rub, like washing your hands. He finishes by laying his hands on my head and asking for God’s grace and blessings. And then he thanks me for everything I do, thanks all of us, and gives me a big hug and says softly in my ear, “Take care, sweetheart.”