Young. Geez, she’s young. These were the first things that ran through my mind when I met Hannah*. I had to check the chart again to see why she was in our office. Lung cancer. Lung cancer?
We met right after Christmas. I’m not sure if it was still in 2008 or if we’d passed the New Year’s festivities, but it was cold and dark and this tall beauty was sitting in our office with lung cancer. I was 26 at the time and Hannah was just a couple years older than I was. Maybe that’s why she impacted me so much. Or maybe it was because of the tenacity of her fight, or the humor she and her mom, Sue, tried to keep. I really don’t know why she’s stuck with me so long and hard, but she has.
She named her tumor Murphy for Murphy’s Law. I mean, who would think a triathlete would get lung cancer? And for a while she did great (relatively speaking) with chemo! The symptoms that landed her with this diagnosis seemed to go away. She rocked the bald. I mean, Super Foxxy bald was in the house!
And then Murphy came back. That visit was like a blow in the gut. Me, the doc, Sue, and Hannah all cried. [https://2ndtimesacharm.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/the-doctor-who-cried/]
I felt like she was so strong, despite her body crumbling around her. During the entire time we treated her, I never really knew what to say to Hannah. She always seemed to have things under control and I felt like whatever I had to say was kind of trite. See, she didn’t just have lung cancer, it spread and metastasized like an evil army in her body. But Hannah kept living. I’ll never forget the trip she took to the Oregon Coast with family. I worked so hard to get her a portable oxygen tank so she could easily roam around on the beach. The pictures she brought back made it worth it–I could tell she enjoyed the ocean breeze, being with the kids, getting away from the clinic… When she came back it seemed like everything was just on a steady decline. Thin became thinner, the pixie twinkle in her eyes was dulled, her face grew round from all the steroids. I knew we were living with her on borrowed time.
At the very end, just a couple days before she passed, I saw her in clinic. I knew I needed to say something. Say what? “Sorry we couldn’t beat Murphy”? “Sorry you had such crappy luck and didn’t deserve all these horrible things”? “Sorry you won’t get a chance to get old”? I couldn’t say any of it. I couldn’t ask her if her heart was doing okay which is part of my job. I just couldn’t.
Hannah was admitted that day to the hospital. A friend of mine took care of her that weekend. As I opened my computer early Sunday morning to study for a test, I saw a Facebook post that made my heart drop–my friend had written that there was another angel in heaven.
I knew. I couldn’t study anymore because I knew. But I had to call the doctor I worked with to make sure. I remember standing in my front yard, kicking fallen leaves, my breath crisp in the air as he told me that Hannah died.
“Fuck!” I yelled away from the phone to no one and everyone.
He told me he had talked to Hannah and Sue about all the hard stuff that I just couldn’t bring up. That made me feel a little better. But I still had this nagging guilt that I knew I needed to talk to her and now I couldn’t. Forever. I was so torn up about this that I talked to a close friend to try to process my feelings. She gave me some words of wisdom.
“Maybe you missed the boat this time. But next time you will know! When you get that feeling that you’re supposed to have a tough conversation, you’ll do it. You can think of it as being Hannah’s voice.”
Almost four years have gone by. I still remember Hannah, especially at this time of year, and I still hear her voice.
*Hannah’s mom, Sue, gave me permission to share her story and her impact on me with you.