Two weeks ago, just in time for Thanksgiving, I received the results of my bone marrow biopsy. The news was good. “Congratulations,” said my oncologist, “your bone marrow is normal.” And just today my bone marrow transplant doctor in Tucson called to say I was no longer a transplant candidate—news that I had been expecting but that was nonetheless good to hear. However, I didn’t write about the good news straight away. That’s because just a few days after hearing that I could return to my normal life, I found out that a friend had died.
Duncan and I went to the same small college and had several friends in common. We had a few English classes together, and he took over from me as the student newspaper’s film critic after I graduated. We were Facebook friends. Still, he and I were not particularly close—just another set of acquaintances tied together by the loose strands of social media.
I mention this not to temper the words that follow but to enhance them: I loved the guy.
Those aren’t words we say to people outside our inner circles, unless it’s a Kardashian-style “love ya” with air kisses. And straight men certainly do not say them to other men who are not blood relatives. But Duncan did. And here I am now, with him unable to hear it, saying I love him because it’s true.
When I was first diagnosed with aplastic anemia in July, I didn’t get down about it. In between trips to the infusion center, the emergency room and my oncologist’s office, I waited to become depressed, as though I had somehow not yet appreciated the gravity of the situation. Darkness never descended.
We don’t tell people we love them, unless it’s a Kardashian-style “love ya” with air kisses. But Duncan did.
I’d like to say that part of my positive mindset was related to my inherent optimism, which may or may not be true, but a big part of it was due to the love and support I received from others. I do not necessarily mean friends and family. When bad things happen, I expect my family and friends to be there for me. It’s part of the job description, and the people closest to me are incredible at their jobs. What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of love and well-wishes from people I hadn’t spoken to in years. Here are some excerpts from messages I received after my diagnosis:
“I have smiled watching your life unfold.”
“You’ve inspired me.”
“You’re still one of my favorite people.”
Most of the senders prefaced their message in a similar way—with “we aren’t close” or “we haven’t talked in awhile”—as though our natural human feelings of empathy and compassion are somehow restricted to a select few. Yet, in fact, no such hedges are necessary: The messages I received out of the blue from old friends, colleagues and the barest of acquaintances meant the most to me. They stood out because I realized that even after so much time apart, someone I knew had come away with a positive impression of me, no matter how small, and had taken the time to share it.
Which brings me back to Duncan. Whereas during my long illness I was literally able to see others’ expressions of love, Duncan died suddenly. Thus, the day he died he probably didn’t know that his ninth-grade girlfriend still remembered how gentle he was when he held her hand. He may have not realized that his sensitivity and kindness had helped pull a former classmate out of a dark time. He wouldn’t have heard the grocery store checker say that his smile helped him get through his shift. I know Duncan knew these things in his heart because he was extremely well-liked. But before he left us, it would have been nice for someone like me—out of the blue, who wasn’t especially close to him—to send him a message like the last one he wrote me:
“Hey Jeff. I just read your most recent serial monography post. I get them emailed to me automatically and I enjoy them immensely. I thought this one would be about being a new dad, or sleep deprivation — you know, new kid stuff. As your story began to unfold I felt amazed at you — your tone, your unique ability to find the words to say things plainly, and most of all by your ability to not be a victim. That’s truly amazing, Jeff. You’ve got something special, man. You always did.”