I’m not the type of person that wants to make friends through cancer. I didn’t feel compelled to bond with others in the experience, join support groups, or fly the flag. For reasons I’ve touched on more throughly in other posts, I just didn’t want the identity of cancer. I felt no compulsion to fly a flag handed to me instead of one I picked up. I’m just not the type of person who wants to make friends through cancer, in part because I sure as hell don’t want to lose friends to cancer all the same. Sentiment is nice, if hardly practical, so when I made friends with Denver Hutt, it had nothing to do with shrugging my shoulders against the circumstance and just saying, “Oh well, I guess I’ll tolerate this fellow patient.”
I had met Denver completely outside of cancer in both our lives. My employment situation had taken a sudden turn for the worse and as I scrambled to find work while my savings disappeared to child support payments, we were connected by the small town in a big city dynamic that is Indianapolis. The Executive Director of The Speakeasy and by some unknown social media connection, emails were exchanged and she promised to put out requests into her network. Then just a few days later our paths crossed at a coffee shop where I often worked in the morning and which sat across the street from her house. Quick, casual and official introductions were made, but we went about our ways, mine leading into my diagnosis just a few weeks later.
I took a photo of the chemotherapy clinic I would get to know with too much familiarity, posted it on social media to a growing list of friends deeply concerned about my well being, when a text suddenly came through.
“Psssst…I’m next door.”
My mind instantly went to worst case scenarios as it tends to do. She has cancer? Has she had it? Did she just get it?
I pressed her with questions and she explained they weren’t sure what was going on, but it might be pneumonia, a case so bad she had cracked multiple ribs in more strenuous coughing fits. They were running more tests and although they didn’t know what was going on, that is hardly a sign of encouragement in these sorts of situations. She asked for privacy with the information and I agreed, because just like that were friends that can only be formed in very certain terms of crisis and desperation.
The tests, of course, ultimately shows cancer as the culprit, but right off the bat her situation was unique and rife with problems. The dynamics of her case were so complex and varied that she was pointed directly to the head oncologists in their respective fields. She was the anomaly of anomalies. But I feared that wasn’t the hopeful kind of anomaly to be. Denver would have disagreed, vehemently, to my face, as she sometimes did. I liked her fire even though I got burned a couple times.
We made time to catch up on our health situations (me pausing design work and Denver getting discussion in between the rapid fire meetings she was always hosting at the coffee shops where I would work) as our non-cancer lives rarely intersected. She visited me in the hospital after my first surgery, bringing a box of Operation game brand band-aids, which sits in my “cancer box” with everything else. We continued to meet on schedule if time passed too long without a chance encounter, and our friendship expanded into territories most rarely get.
I realize now that although I’m not the type of person who wants to make friends through cancer, it’s because even people who have cancer can hardly relate. There is an obvious age discrepancy between a relative baby such as myself, in the cancer community, and the rest of the cancer demographic. I’m 39, but I’m treated like I’m 14. A different sort of pity and “what happened” comprises the tone in all the questioning. Denver was only 28 when she died.
A large part of our friendship solidified not because we had cancer, but because we now had to make serious choices in our lives afforded only to the young, and we essentially needed to make them immediately. I was relieved to hear her mirror my thoughts in our conversations, to know that the private issues I was considering were more universal than personal, but to us, they were also tainted with the very real threat of abbreviated mortality. We couldn’t talk about love in the same way others our age do. Our considerations of kids could only carry much more significant risk and reward. Our maneuvering for employment and stability, against the threatened need to live all out, felt almost sinister.
And somehow, I was the more fortunate one in our circumstance. Despite our impossibly unique connection and similarities, the 10 years I experienced beyond hers helped answer some questions more definitively. At the very least, I created an amazing child and will not miss out on a significant portion of that experience, come what may.
Denver had a greater fire in her than me. She was more blunt than I had ever experienced before, and I get the feeling this was not dictated by the immediacy of cancer. I respected that, and although my care for one of her abrupt health changes had me choosing words unwisely, which afforded me something of a period of shunning, I took it as a sign of our genuine friendship.
More than all the discussions we shared, the questions we bounced back and forth, the life considerations we tried to hash out together, the greatest part of our friendship was the comfort I had in knowing that I wasn’t going this alone. I know I’ll be ok to go it alone. And I know I have so many in my life who are making sure I don’t go it alone, but there was something different about the friendship I had with Denver, that it wasn’t just the unique perspective our relative youth afforded us in this crisis, but the comfort I had knowing that when things got sad, when the motivation waned, when the fire died down, that she had experienced the same and if needed, I could always call to meet up at a coffee shop, which although consistently ended in tears for her, I knew was important. I knew it was some way of us saying, I’m still here too.
Laura walked over to my bedside in the ICU and said through choked words, “Is it ok to give you bad news in the hospital?”, her way of saying that something was terribly wrong and I needed to know, no matter how unideal the situation might be.
“Denver died last night.”
Maybe I was fortunate to be emotionally clouded by so many drugs, distracted by having to manage my own pain, or even hearing a bit about “the writing on the wall” from a friend and even Denver herself just a week prior. I didn’t have much of a reaction. I figured this day would come. I gathered some more of the specifics and let the information pass through me, filing it for consideration later.
I didn’t really know what was to come of her passing. She was pretty adamant that wasn’t going to happen, and I wasn’t about to discount her drive to make it so. I guess she wore off on me in that way, in that was the one worst-case scenario my mind didn’t jump to. “What would it be like without Denver going through this too?”
That’s all I can say. I won’t have an impossibly organic connection to someone like her again and the opportunities to hear my life and death considerations reverberate back to me from her own consciousness is gone. That comforting, shared moment has come and gone and in a way, I face this with one less person to consider the experience.
It’s going to be lonely without Denver around, knowing our chance coffee shop encounters are of the past, but as with all our friends who have had their lightswitch of consciousness abruptly flipped, we know it’s the remembrance of their spirit with which we continue forward, and the last thing Denver would ever accept from any of us is dejected resignation. She would demand we do something good and probably unreservedly scold us to our faces if we didn’t comply.
She ended her last blog post with the most simple and practical of advice that is only right to share again. I get the feeling she had the sense this might be her final parting post, which makes the advice that much more pertinent.
“I will ask that you smile at strangers more this week. Be kind simply because you are a kind person. Judge a little less. Hold the door open.”
I know first hand she practiced what she preached, in part because she was on the receiving end of some pretty selfish cruelty when her coughing fits were met with uncaring hostility from a public with no idea what she was experiencing. I loved her idea to create a button to wear that said, “Don’t worry, it’s not contagious, it’s cancer,” but I also know she was not one to pick up the identity flag either. She wanted to be acknowledged only for her acts as an individual, and so for all those that knew her, do consider being kind, judging a little less, and for goodness sake…HOLD THE DOOR OPEN!
It’s gonna be lonely without you Denver.