07/10/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

My Nurse, My Friend


As a cancer patient, I've become keenly aware of the reality of death. In the same breath that I found out I had been diagnosed with cancer, my next thought was am I going to die? I've come to terms with the fact that I would've died months ago had it not been for the grace of God and the miracles of modern medicine. As I've read over countless chemotherapy consent forms, I've literally signed my life away, fully understanding that along with the listed side effects of nausea and hair loss is the possibility of death.

But even still, I was not prepared for the sense of loss that accompanies death. I guess I'd gotten so accustomed to thinking about my own death that I never considered the possibility of the (relatively) healthy people around me dying. I wasn't expecting to be around long enough to experience that grief... I thought I'd probably die before everyone else I cared about. But that was not the case.

Charles was one of the first nurses I met at my new oncology clinic. The best way I could think of to describe him is sort of like a goofy uncle mixed with Santa Claus. The way he greets people is as if he's announcing your presence to the whole building, like you're somebody important. He's always cracking a corny joke or is humming a silly song. He makes you forget you're even in an oncology clinic, which takes a lot of skill. Sometimes he jokes, "Now where's my dollar?" after he takes your vitals. One time around the holidays, he actually reversed the joke and gave out dollar bills to all his patients. He hung a sign over the scale that read, "No dollar charge today." When I asked him about the sign, he unrolled a wad of ones and winked as he handed me a dollar. "Don't spend it all in one place!"

I remember during my first day in the clinic, he told me that he was also a leukemia survivor. He had been diagnosed around twenty years old, same as me. Except back then, probably around the late 1960s, cancer was pretty much a death sentence, especially for young adults. Chemotherapy was not nearly as sophisticated as it is today, and a lot of what they did was experimental. I had never met anybody else that had survived young adult onset leukemia that long.

I was amazed. Here was this man who had probably endured a horrendous amount of experimental chemotherapy, and yet forty years later was still goofy and compassionate and so... alive! It gave me tremendous hope to see that life could continue beyond cancer, and that this diagnosis didn't have to be the final, sad chapter, but could be the beginning of something bigger.

The last time I was in the clinic, I realized that I hadn't seen Charles anywhere that day. The entire clinic was chaotic, and the air seemed heavier somehow. The smiles of the other nurses in the clinic were grim, as if forced. I asked one of them if Charles had taken the day off. She immediately stopped her frantic typing, and turned around slowly, looking me in the eye. "Oh, honey... you didn't know? Charles... he died."

I swear I felt my heart drop into my stomach.

That light, that sacred hope that I had built up every day I saw him... I felt as if it had just been unceremoniously snuffed out. He couldn't be dead... I had just seen him a week or two ago! He was just here... were they sure he was dead, not just in the supply closet or filing papers in the back? I kept craning my neck and straining my ears, waiting to hear the echoes of his voice or catch sight of him turning the corner. But he wasn't there. He wasn't anywhere, as far as I knew. Apparently his funeral had been that previous weekend, and he had been cremated. I had nothing of him to hold onto, no way to say goodbye. I realized at the time I couldn't even remember his last name... to me, he was just Charles.

I still forget that he's gone now and find myself accidentally thinking, "Oh, I gotta remember this joke to tell Charles" or "I need to ask him about such-and-such next time." Then I remember, and that thick knot at the back of my throat will start to form again as I force back the tears. I still miss him, and probably always will.

As I've reflected on the last eight months of his life that I knew him, I have realized something, though. I recently learned Charles had been having health problems for a while, but he didn't talk much about it. Thinking back on the almost daily basis that I saw him, I realized I'd never heard him complain... he was always too busy helping distract me from my own pain. He seemed to live to bring out the joy in others and had a beautiful way of creating happiness when it wasn't there. He lived like a man who knew his days were numbered, and that he needed to make them count. He knew that what he was doing mattered, even if it only mattered to just one child (although I can guarantee it mattered to so many more of us, patients and caregivers alike). Somewhere along the line, he'd learned the perfect combination of compassion, humor, and love. He lived like he knew the secret to being happy, and I think he probably did.

Even though he's gone, I will carry his memory with me. His joy has permanently etched itself into the very walls of my heart. He brought light into my life during one of the darkest, most troubling times I could've ever imagined. I hope I can carry and share that same light that he brought into my life with others.

I will always be grateful to you, Charles. Rest in peace, my friend.