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  • RIP to a Friend

    More than 5 years ago, I spent the day taking photos of Karen Loss. We had been teammates on a co-ed softball team for a number of years, and she had been diagnosed with Stage IV inoperable lung cancer.

    The day was so inspiring and memorable that I wrote a lengthy essay about it. I sent it to Karen, who wrote a beautiful note back to me.

    We continued to correspond via email as I and a host of others followed her journey. I sent her tickets to a couple of Nationals games that she was able to attend, receiving a couple of funny notes in return that our seats were "not lung patient friendly."

    Karen passed away yesterday, having fought long and valiantly against this horrible disease. RIP, my friend.

  • Life Lessons, Friendships and Cancer

    The first time I met Karen Loss, she threw a softball at me. Fortunately, I had a glove to catch it.

    Karen and I were teammates on a co-ed team that was part of a recreational league in Northern Virginia. (Emphasis on recreational.) The Seekers were desperate for female players; those who were good were even better.

    Karen was good. In fact, within a short period of time, she trained herself to be a pitcher, and consistently filled that bill for several years.

    Today, she is battling inoperable Stage IV lung cancer. Two weeks ago, she started chemotherapy for the second time in 14 months. A few days before she started the regimen again, we spent a weekend afternoon together, taking pictures while she still has a full head of hair.

    ••••••

    This is not a eulogy. If anything, it’s a story about the unexpected impact people can have on your life, even if you don’t know them that well.

    I was lucky to be part of The Seekers for 11 years. Everyone appreciated my effort, despite my severe lack of natural talent. I never had played organized baseball or softball, but because the team was church-based and focused on fellowship, I got to play anyway.

    The team had a core group that was close, largely because they went to the same church, but each year brought new faces. In an area where the first question often is, “What do you do for a living?” it was rarely discussed. At any given point, half to two-thirds of the team had to be circumspect about their career choice since they worked for government agencies that required strict adherence to their top secret security clearance.

    With a few exceptions (the manager, Karen, and a couple of the players), I was older than everyone, coming to the team having been married, divorced, remarried, and the parent of four kids. Most of the team was dating, engaged or newly married when I joined in 2001.

    Over the next decade plus one year, I returned each May to The Seekers, watching as my teammates married and started families of their own. We played catch up on lives, laughed, joked, and generally enjoyed each others’ company, then went our separate ways after the season.

    It was always nice to go back the following spring.

    ••••••

    Before starting this blog, I sent out “Cook Family Updates” via e-mail, usually with a link to a crude website I started to show off photos and keep everyone posted on our gang. Relatives were the primary demographic on my list, although I added work colleagues and groups of friends from North Carolina and Texas when we moved to Virginia.

    Over time, it also became the way I kept in touch with the Seekers between seasons.

    In early 2008, when Ben was performing in “Macbeth,” Karen responded to one of those emails. At the time, I knew she had a dog sitting business; I didn’t know that she had briefly flirted with an acting career while in Los Angeles, had majored in music at a small conservatory, or worked as a music teacher.

    From time to time, during the season and via email, we talked about performers. Karen has enjoyed being kept posted on Ben’s career, and when I started taking my random abstract pictures and putting them on Facebook, she was highly complimentary.

    The Seekers disbanded in 2012, when the manager transferred to Germany. By this time, most of the now-older guard was married and had kids, and it was difficult at times to find enough players to field a team for the May-July league.

    Because of my travels back and forth with Ben, I didn’t attend the last two team parties, but have kept in touch with the Seekers via Facebook. Karen and I chatted via messages, especially during a period when she was serving as the manager for a Cuban-American guitarist, and when “Billy Elliot” was playing in the D.C. area.

    Then in November 2012, I received the first her group email message, telling a group of her friends about her lung cancer diagnosis and plans for the first round of chemotherapy.

    “Please do not misunderstand,” the message read. “That does not mean I am on death’s door, but it does mean that it has metastasized, and that it is currently deemed inoperable.”

    ••••••

    From November 2012 to April 2013, Karen received six rounds of chemotherapy. Each time, through the group messages, she chronicled how the treatment was going and its side effects. For her, they included weight gain, fatigue, and peripheral neuropathy, which for her led to numbness and severe itching on the hands and feet.

    Karen’s emails are not just medical updates; each time, I gain more insight into her life. She has written about being fortunate to go to her job — she’s a meeting coordinator in corporate security services at Mitre, a large government contractor — and about the search for hats to wear when her hair started falling out. She talked about participating in her company’s Run/Walk for Fun, where she finished in the top 10 in the walking division three weeks after finishing her final chemo cycle. She described what it was like to meet and talk with one of her idols, Michael Crawford (the original Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera”).

    I also learned that Karen already had beaten two different kinds of cancer 17 years before, and that her journey had only strengthened her faith. During this period, she wrote a hymn about her experience, and later sent an audio file to the group so we could hear it ourselves.

    ••••••

    Last July, about six weeks after I was laid off, Karen sent me a note and asked if I wanted to meet for lunch. She was — and is — looking to publish a book on her cancer journey, and wanted to pick my brain for writing and editing tips.

    Two months removed from chemotherapy, she had just gotten word that she could participate in Compassion International’s sponsor tour to Haiti. She has sponsored children through the organization, a Christian child advocacy ministry that helps more than 1.4 million kids in 26 countries, for 14 years.

    We talked about ways to turn her updates into the book, tentatively titled Trekking Through Cancerland — Letters from the Journey. She talked about the book’s universal nature, noting that everyone seems to have had a cancer experience, whether it was personal, a family member, or friends.

    As always, she seemed realistic but upbeat, ready to face life’s challenges as they came. We agreed to talk more as she worked on the manuscript.

    The email updates continued, not as frequent as those she was posting during the first round of chemo. Then, a few days after returning from Haiti in November, Karen wrote that she would be having another CT scan. The cancer, which had been dormant, had returned.

    ••••••

    Three weeks ago, between the snaps of bitter cold hitting the Northeast, Karen and I connected about the pictures. A clinical trial had been ruled out, the start of the next round of chemo was imminent, and she wanted to get together.

    We discussed where to go, and talked about picking the places that mean the most to her, settling on her church and Great Falls Park.

    Over the five hours we spent together, we talked about a variety of things while I snapped away — families, where we grew up, our mutual writing, photography, theater, churches, faith, my kids, her Compassion trip, and our mutual appreciation/love for the Washington Nationals. Not once did we discuss cancer.

    Although I knew it instinctively, when we pulled into the park, Karen and I discussed the fact that she’s an introvert, someone uncomfortable in a crowd but with friends all over the world. The rain and snow had mostly melted, causing the falls to rush forcefully past. Despite the chill in the late afternoon air, it was all very peaceful.

    As we walked back to the car, the sun setting, I was reminded of something she had written in one of her updates last July, and how it summed up her attitude beautifully.

    “My life is full … and in its own way, I even count my cancer as a blessing.  It allows me to communicate with so many people who only a year ago were probably not even on my radar.  I have had the chance to educate others through these writings in ways I never would have guessed, ways that make us think, or laugh, or feel a degree of frustration, or even itch (!).

    “I believe this is all for good.  And I remain always thankful to God for every blessing.”

    It truly was a blessed day.  

    For more photos from this shoot, go to the Visual Storytelling section.

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  • Keep In Touch

    Last week, one of our neighbors died from pancreatic cancer. She was so private that only the people closest to her — her immediate family and pastor — knew she had been ill for the past seven months.

    The news came as a shock to the neighborhood, which saw its somewhat fragile and itinerant ecosystem shaken. Living close to a military base 15 miles outside Washington, D.C., we are used to seeing For Sale signs pop up every several months as neighbors move away, but no one is prepared for something like this.

    No one expects to die at age 49, leaving a teenage child without either of his biological parents. And for the core group of families that has been in the neighborhood since the beginning, losing a charter member is an even deeper cut, especially when you did not know that person had been ill.

    ••••••

    One disadvantage to living in an area that has four seasons is that you rarely see anyone outside from November to March. Smaller children, the thread that is the fabric of suburban neighborhoods, stay inside during inclement (read “cold”) weather.

    Except for the holidays, or when it snows/ices, casual neighbors see each other only long enough to wave while walking the dog or getting in or out of the car.  Then another spring rolls around and the kids emerge, taller and with new toys.

    Once your kids reach that tween/teen phase, playing outside becomes less important, falling victim to technology and peer groups. With busy lives and crazy run around schedules, you have to make a persistent effort to remain in touch.

    The person who passed away is — I can’t bring myself to use the past tense — the first person we saw in the neighborhood. And that was even before our house was completed.

    Our Virginia-based children, then 4, 3, and 3, immediately picked up on the fact that one of our neighbors had a child who was around their age. Ben, in particular, was thrilled to see that it was a boy.

    For several years, our boys played together regularly. They spoke of each other as brothers. When Ben started acting, his friend’s mom regularly brought her son to his shows. When the boy’s father became ill, he started coming over to our house more and more. On the day of his father’s funeral, he came home with us and stayed for several hours; that Halloween, he went trick or treating with us while his mom remained at home to hand out candy.

    About two years after the funeral, Ben moved to New York. By this time, his friend had a new father figure in his life. His mother was glowing and happy. During the spring and summer, they were always outside, working in the yard or playing basketball.

    Like many kids, Ben and his friend drifted apart, in part because of distance and in part because of divergent interests. His friend has shot up in height, while Ben has remained relatively small. His friend is consumed by sports — especially basketball. Ben, although he enjoys athletics, obviously is not.

    Kate and Emma would see the family down the street occasionally, and comment on how all seemed well. But over the past several months, we saw them less and less.

    Today, that 14-year-old boy is without his mother, too.

    •••••• 

    There were little signs. She looked thinner when I drove past their house. The boy and his stepfather did not play basketball outside. The impeccably groomed yard started showing signs of wear.

    But those little signs did not add up, and the family’s desire for privacy overwhelmed everything else. That’s why the news, sudden for most though months in the making, was such a shock.

    Our thoughts — everyone’s thoughts — immediately went to the boy who has lost both of his biological parents. We thought of the kind man who has taken responsibility for a son he never had, and — while grieving on his own — is faced with continuing his wife’s work alone.

    On Saturday night, in between trips that prevented us from going to the funeral 90 miles away earlier that day, I stopped by to pay my condolences. What started as a simple hello and goodbye evolved into a 90-minute conversation about faith and loss and hope.

    Leaving, I thought of the little things we can look out for and do. Will we see them playing basketball? Will the yard return to its usual impeccable shape? Will the presence of the woman with the unshakable faith always be felt? As the boy enters high school, how can Jill — thanks to her school counseling connections — help and assist with her wonderful, professional and parental touch.

    As their friend, I left with the pledge to stop by and check on them, and with the offer to help in any way we can without pressing or pushing.

    After all, isn’t that what good neighbors do?