"You are the only person I've called," he says. “I have cancer."
I knew right then I would lose him. But I didn’t know I would lose him like I have, in installments. I was not prepared for the staggered, ruthless falling apart of one of the people I love most in the world.
The man with prodigious memory became forgetful. I don't mean he didn't know where he left his glasses. I mean he'd be angry for the fact that we had not talked in weeks, when in fact, we had spoken that morning. He was always idiosyncratic, but he became contradictory, confessing he did not want to fight, did not want chemo, then scheduling appointments, then not showing up for them. He, never easy but frequently reasonable, became unwilling to adhere to any order by any doctor, refusing, for example, to take the antibiotics prescribed after a life-threatening surgery.
The man I knew as the most charismatic influencer became insatiably lonely. My super hero became afraid not just of death, but of life, of leaving his house. He became afraid of the dark. I could hear him pacing straight through the night. Ambition, diminished, gave way to restlessness. He lost all evidence of inner peace.
The strongest, frankly dictatorial authority figure I have known would look at me blankly, unable to make even simple decisions. "Tell me what to do," he would say to the person he once instructed. "I don't know what to do."
"I have trouble imagining what the world will be like without me," he told me one day. "I don't want to live in that world," I replied. I meant it.
I looked at him while he was sleeping - a ghost of him, see-through almost - and began to cry. I hoped quietly. He opened his eyes and he held my hand with his so-very-frail one, veins showing blue through his skin. I saw a faint, sweet glimmer of the ferocious protector he once was. "Don't worry," he patted me. "This is nothing. I will recover.”
A few days later, I overheard someone say a person they knew had "lost the battle" against cancer.
Lost? How can you lose after so many years well lived, after spending yourself every day in your endeavors, after being so impossible, after forging relationships with people you will come to count on, after reading so many books, after making your mark in so many different unsuspected places, after so much success, so much failure, after being such an active participant in this thing we call life?
That’s when it hit me. Our vernacular is all wrong. I resent how cancer is represented. Just because something kills you cannot possibly mean it defeats you. If that were true, we would all - masters and poets and liars and sinners and dancers and writers and heroes - be destined in the end to be losers.
I believe that my human is a winner who will one day go, triumphant, to his own secular heaven, where he will survey the newspaper over freshly pressed coffee, eat delicious food, sip the best scotch, partake in really good sex, jog on a long beach, and spend a lot of time watching over the people he loved and left here, including me.
And cancer, deceiver, pretender, coward; it cannot even subsist without the vibrant people it depends on. It will end up shriveled up, dried up, dead; rolled up in dirty gauze and tossed into a wastebasket, quickly forgotten.
So suck it, cancer. No one here will ever lose to you.