I greeted each patient. Each survivor. I had tables set up with fruit and coffee and juices and water. The conference room was lined with comfortable chairs and nice decorations. A gift and a fuel card, along with a “release” form, accompanied each seat. The elder ladies were dressed in Sunday dress, colorful hats, broaches, summer scarves and all manner of style.

I introduced myself and made small talk before our group chat. The heat of the day, the news of Winston-Salem, kids, and summer plans.

conversationThe conversation would soon move to the more serious. Life and death and the in-between.

This was a chance to learn and to grow our service to those who have lived with and do LIVE with cancer. These brave and open women accepted my invitation to meet and share their experiences. Some were new to their diagnosis. Others in remission. A few in late stages and terminal. They were all connected by these terrorist cells — pun intended — and all were more than willing to offer me thoughts on what we could do better and what we do so beautifully well to serve and love them through their trial.

We spoke of the science and the art of care. We talked about the technology and the skills of caregivers. We talked of processes and navigation and finance.

The conversation always circled back to what mattered most: compassion. With all the appointments, chemical “cocktails,” surgeries, radiation, specialists, locations, clinics, information and so much more, what they talked about the most was…

…hands held, stuffed Teddy Bears, blankets, kind words, tears shared, open honest conversation–filled with empathy–about choices, and our presence in the way they needed it the most.

I was left with one indelible impression. They were all, every one, grateful for the life they now have. I have been around those less grateful. This fucking disease can bring extraordinary anger and sadness. It turns idealists into cynics. It changes a person. On this day, these women laughed and held hands and compared clothing and “nipple tattoos” and moments of truth.

There I sat in all my healthy state. Thinking about the times I lament over things so inconsequential. These beautiful women stare at death. Some have stared it down. Some have looked it in the eye and resigned to meet it with grace. Others look right past it and just wait and live.

Through the laughter and tears and open conversation I learned so very much about just how right we are in our mission of medicine and compassion. I learned also what we can do to be so much better.

I honor them this morning by also being grateful. I am grateful for those who surround me with love. I am grateful for the music I get to hear and get to play. I am grateful for the woods and the water and the bikes and the boats that make them my friend. I am grateful for the words of poets…words that wake my emotions and challenge my mind. I am grateful for the years I spent with my best friend, Tybee. I am grateful for work that matters…for work that adds life, comforts, and in some cases heals. I am grateful for my health, no matter how temporary it may be. I am grateful for this day. I will use it to be a better man.

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