At the Speed of Life

Last week I pulled into a parking lot where time stopped.

I answered a call from my best friend, who a few months before moved his wife and young daughter over 1000 miles from the North Carolina of our youths to Texas. While still five hours away, it’s the closest we’ve lived to each other in almost 30 years.

Ed texted me a couple of weeks prior and asked to call him when I got a chance. His text was a rarity but common for our friendship. We could go months or years without speaking. Yet, once we touched base, we picked up as if our yesterday was yesterday.

15 hour work days blurred, shifted and traded places. The day we spoke was no different. As I left the office and emerged from the underground parking garage into the Wednesday night dark, I heard my phone buzz. I pulled over and slow halted in front of a stop sign.

I looked at the phone. There was no call or voicemail. A lone 1 in a red circle in the icon’s left corner reminded me I had a text. It was Ed. I needed to call him back. As I chalked it up to a news notification, another 1 in urgent red caught my eye in the Social apps group. I tapped the phone and saw the culprit. I opened the seldom used Facebook Messenger.

“Hey, Ed wanted me to reach you through Facebook. Can you give him a call when you get a chance? Hope you all are doing well!”

Kay, a mutual friend since meeting at the elementary school we attended 150 yards beyond the back gate of my house, reached out to me. Ed dated Kay for a minute in high school. Both decided friendship was more important and still remained close decades later. In fact, she just visited him in Houston a few weeks ago.

“You bet, Kay. I just saw the text I got from Ed but slipped my mind to call him – crazy work schedule. I will give him a shout. Hope all is well with you and yours.”

Phone still in hand, I put the car in gear, turned right on the street in front of my office building and zizagged into a busy fast food lot before parking.

I scrolled to his name and hit dial.

A Curse Comes Calling

“Hey, can I call you back in a second?” he said.

“Of course. I’m in the car on the way home.” I replied.

His voice soft, I thought I might have interrupted Ed putting his young daughter to bed.

Although 48, he and his wife had a four-year-old, beautiful girl. They met while attending N.C. State. As their friends and family all started having kids after marriage, Ed and his wife concentrated on her graduating medical school and his career in engineering. I wasn’t certain kids were in their picture until I got the call telling me he was going to be a dad.

My phone rang.

“Well, I don’t know how to tell you this so I guess I’ll just say it.”

Voice unsteady and halting, he continued, “I have cancer.”

“What the fuck? No!” I shouted.

“Yeah, it started back in December around Christmas. I was not feeling well, really weak. I realized I was having a hard time swallowing and burping a lot. I mean A LOT. At first, I thought it was just indigestion or reflux but it kept going. In January, my throat started hurting. I assumed it was due to the burping. I thought I might have scarred my larynx.”

“What did the doctor say?”

“I had some tests done and a biopsy that came back inconclusive. The MRI confirmed it’s throat cancer. I start chemo in the next week or so. It’s been tough few months and I wanted to let you know…to tell you myself before you found out some other way.”

I idled dumb, mute.

“The doctors don’t know exactly how much its spread yet. Possibly to my stomach. If it’s reached my pancreas, I know…well, I know what that means. I’m done.”

All Your Teenage Bills Have Been Paid and You Can Tell Your Best Buddy That You Love Him

I responded with encouragement.

“You’ve got a great support system. You now have your Mom, brother and his family, as well as your own family with you. We’re just a short drive down.”

“Yes. Yes, I do. MD Anderson is a premier treatment facility and it’s here in town. I’m going there for chemo.”

His voice was hoarse and raspy; it lacked the spring and vitality I’ve known since I could know.

“Listen, I’m gonna go. I just wanted to let you know what was happening. Outside of family, only you and Kay know…but you’re family. I know you went through a tough time with Bud. You’ve got experience with this, you and Kay, and I may need to call you.”

Ed referenced my stepdad’s lost fight with small cell lung cancer and Kay’s sister, mom and brother-in-law’s passing due to the different forms of the same disease.

“Listen, Bud’s experience and Kay’s family’s experiences are not yours. You have your own road. You keep your head up. I know that’s easier to say than do but you have to – especially now. I’m here for you, brother. I love you. Anything you or your family need, call me. I’m just a short drive away. In either case, call me and I’ll do the same. I know how we can be, wanting to be strong and not talk about it but it’s what you need. I know depression like a brother from another mother and you can’t let yourself go there. Talking is good for the soul and cheap therapy. So, call or text me next week and let me know your treatment schedule.”

“I will, man. Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers. The good Lord willing, they’ve caught it early enough. Love you too, and give my love to Cheryl and the kids.”

Forced to Fight? Love, Hope and Faith are Fearless Allies

Today, Cheryl and I ate Sunday brunch together at her favorite Tex-Mex joint. I re-read Ed’s text about his first session. All went well but the side-effects knocked him down for a day or two. He headed into his 3rd treatment component on Friday. Ed was relieved to get the first round over and on his way.

I thumbed a response, “I didn’t want to bug you because I was unsure of how your body would react and wanted to let you rest. I know it’s not something you were looking forward to but you’ve got top care @ MD Anderson. You are the strongest guy I’ve ever known and have made countless people who’ve had the fortune of knowing you all the better for it. I consider our friendship one of the greatest experiences and honors of my life. If this is a fight you’re forced to fight, I know you’ll give it hell. Give me a shout when you are feeling better. Take the time to focus on you and getting well, my friend. Know that we are thinking and praying for you daily. Lean on your family and friends. Love, hope, and faith are your greatest allies in this battle. They will stand strong, without fear, alongside you as we will, buddy. I love you and Cheryl sends her love as well. Talk to you this week.”

I handed the phone to my wife and breathed a deep breath. The staccato exhale betrayed me. Unexpected waves of emotion pounded my chest. No words flowed for a few moments, only a struggle to fight back tears.

Credits: A play on a verse in Check It Out by John Mellencamp from his album, The Lonesome Jubilee (1987).

Written before the WordPress Daily Prompt, Friend