I gave a speech for a public speaking class in undergrad about how it was cool to wear red ribbons and talk about supporting money for an incurable but preventable disease, while another disease killed more people and was much less preventable. I spoke of a Homecoming Queen from my hometown and delivered an argument for funneling more resources toward a disease that takes people unpredictably and in numbers far greater than the other disease that was completely preventable but more hip to get behind. I got an A- and was told I sounded a little “too much like Rush Limbaugh” and should consider lawschool. Noted. For the next two years as I’d run into classmates from that course in other classes or football games or out at bars, they’d ask about that “girl I gave the speech about who had cancer,” and I’d have to tell them she was gone.
My last year of lawschool, a friend named Karen graduated near the top of our class, got hired by the biggest firm in town, and then learned she had cancer while studying for the bar exam. She passed the test, went through chemo, and invited me to several charitable events requiring black tie attire, because she knew I owned a tux and liked to throw back a few beers and dance for 3-4 hours straight, even if we were the only ones doing so in a room full of law partners and charitable people with grey hair and wrinkles and were unaccustomed to a white guy who liked to shag with a black girl. But she died a few months after everything was supposed to be in remission. Right before she was suddenly gone (after the illness had gone into remission), The Complete Lawyer interviewed her. The last question and answer were:
q: What Do You Want To Make Sure You Accomplish Before You Die?
a: I want to enjoy every day. Make the most of it. Whatever time I have.
At the beginning of 2009, another friend from lawschool named Celeste told several of us who’d gathered for a New Year’s happy hour that her chemo was going well and that her solo venture was succeeding. I announced my own plans to go solo and looked forward to having her as a source of advice and encouragement as I pursued my own dreams of self-employment and advocacy for the un-advocated. But she died 6 months later. I sat by myself at the funeral and “kept it together” throughout, until we were supposed to walk down to the front and shake her husband’s hand and say something comforting, but I couldn’t do it, because what does one say to the guy who’s just lost his wife? Instead I stood in the back and cried a bunch while a few of my old classmates tried to tell me it’d be okay. She was supposed to turn 40 the next day.
A month later, I was walking back from lunch provided by a woman trying to sell me on using her company for structured settlements when my cellphone rang, and I learned that the partner for whom I worked my first several years of practicing had just died–about 2 years after she’d walked into my office, closed the door, and told me, “I just thought you should know I have cancer. But don’t worry, I’m not going to die on you or anything–I’ll just leave work early on Fridays for treatment, and when I come back, I might vomit some, but I’ll otherwise expect everything to run as it normally would.” Her name was Leigh. She was the second person I told after I eloped, and the person from whom I learned more about practicing law than anyone with a “professor” preceding his or her name. She believed in me even before I did. And I never told her how much that meant to me.
A few days ago, my father called to tell me he has cancer. And like Leigh and Celeste and Karen and Anna, he’s upbeat about what’s sure to be a quick surgery and maybe some radiation, and all will be fine. But what if it isn’t?