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One of Us Has Breast Cancer

After a year and three months, we're just now coming up for air.  Surprisingly, it has taken this long to rise to the top for we have been overwhelmed ever since we got the news that one of us has breast cancer.  I come from the south and grew up in a tight knit circle of friends that can best be likened to the workings of a bee hive so when something happens to one of us, in many ways, it happens to us all.

It's funny the way the unexpected presents itself, how you never see it coming and how you can be going along with your life, making your plans and assume that they're going to be a certainty by virtue of the fact that you've made them.  That's exactly where things stood when we got the news about Tama.

One of us from our enclave in the south now lives in Sun Valley, Idaho.  Her name is Louise and she's the larger than life, funny one.  Louise has a sense of humor that literally reduces her to tears and it tends to be contagious. She's also the organizer and plan maker who got it in her head one day to have Tama and me fly out to her home in the mountains for an extended weekend.  Tama and I immediately fell in line, our husbands were alerted, our dates were set and our plane tickets were secured. Tama and I were on our way, she from her home in Memphis and I from mine in L.A.  Eight days before our scheduled departure, my phone rang.  I looked at the display illuminating Louise's name and thought, "No doubt some sort of instruction is coming," but it turned out that wasn't the case.  When I picked up the phone, Louise was crying.

 "What is it?" I asked.

"Tama has breast cancer," Louise said without preamble.

 "What?" I questioned again, only this time, with an entirely different inflection.  This time, I meant two things: Did I hear you correctly?  How in the world could this possibly be true?

I'll say this about all of us reared in the south: we know how to do. We know how to step up, we know the perfect gesture for everything no matter what you're talking about and we know how to meet all of life's emergencies. We pretty much slide into an automated code of proper behavior because that's what our southern mothers passed down to us. We don't talk about it amongst ourselves, it's all just the way things are because it was expected of us while growing up and now we expect it from each other.

"What should we do? "I asked Louise, because it was the first thing that sprang to mind.

"I think we should call off ya'll coming out here," Louise said.

"Alright, is that what Tama wants to do?" I asked.

"Tama doesn't know what she wants to do. Her family is freaking out," Louise reported.

"I'm not going to call her today- when did she find out?"

"Yesterday," Louise interjected. "They called with her mammogram results, said they found a mass and wanted to do a biopsy, which Tama didn't bother to tell us, and now they're telling her it's cancer. Now she's telling us."

"I don't even know what to say," I exhaled.

"Call Tama tomorrow anyway," Louise directed.

You have to know Tama. I spent many years thinking Tama was the quiet sort but now I know better; Tama just doesn't let on.  What she is, is a woman of few words.  She's not one of those superfluous talkers; she simply contributes to a conversation with as few words as possible and leaves the floor to everybody else.  She doesn't feel the need to position herself front and center and this is exactly why Louise and I have always deferred to her.

"Hey Tama, Louise called me," I said to her on the phone the next day.

"God, it's always something," Tama said.

"Seriously, is there anything I can do?"

"Yes, come over here and tell my kids I'm not dead yet," Tama said, deflecting the gravity of the moment.

The three of us went on that way for days, backing and forthing over the telephone, vacillating between drama and sarcasm, comparing thoughts and notes and ideas and stories of who has gone through something similar and achieved a happy outcome until Tama's doctors presented her with a concrete, step-by-step agenda that would begin within the month.

For somebody handed a rule book on conduct at birth, I was still uncertain of what to say or do for my childhood friend. One has to have a frame of reference in some things and I just didn't have one for breast cancer or any other serious illness that came down the pike for one of us.

"We need to get a plan," Louise declared over the phone.

"Good idea," I said.

"I think ya'll should still come out here," she said. "Tama says she may as well wait out here for the inevitable."

"Alright, let's airlift Tama on outta there, we may as well," I agreed.

I've found out that it's the little things you do in support of a friend who has breast cancer that end up truly mattering.   For four unscheduled days, we followed Tama's lead, monitoring the understandable yet unpredictable fluidity of her emotions and finding the delicate balance between activity and restorative reprieve.   We had lunch with Louise's friends in Sun Valley, went shopping and took long walks on the mountain trails. When Tama teared up, we teared up ( Ya'll, let me cry now because I'm not going to cry in front of my husband or my kids when I get home," Tama said) and when the look on her otherwise stoic face suggested she was overwhelmed, we simply retreated to Louise's house and took a nap no matter the time of day.  We spent a lot of time talking about our intertwined childhoods, our histories and our families yet oddly enough; we didn't spend a lot of time dwelling on what was to come for Tama in the following months.  For whatever reason, Tama just wanted to be and Louise and I had the unspoken graciousness to just be right alongside her. 

It's been a year and three months now and in that time, the harrowing, incremental dynamic of Tama's breast cancer has included multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, hair loss, on-going hives and reconstructive surgery.  As friends in support, Louise and I kept vigil by demanding blow-by-blow details, sending presents, making phone calls and hanging on every twist and turn of her progress.  It appears that the worst is behind her as there is no sign of the cancer's return, Tama's hair has grown back beautifully and she looks and feels like a glowing million dollars.  In my heart of hearts, I believe that Tama will forever be one of the fortunate breast cancer survivors and although there were times during her travails when I questioned whether anything I could do would ever be enough, since then I have realized that it is enough just to try and it is enough just to be there in support and camaraderie alongside your friend.

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