Meet Betty and Renee, two women with different upbringings and backgrounds, who found each other in the same waiting room of their radiation therapy center. Renee recounts the joys and sorrows that follow a friendship created in the darkest of times.
I met her in the dressing room at the radiation therapy center. Reading a biography that had awaited me each of the last ten days, I smiled as she came in. Though her head was held high, her movements were slow and her eyes uncertain as they rested on mine. I knew the look because the feeling was still so fresh in my heart. What is this going to be like? How will it affect my body? Will it really help?
“So…,” she began as she eased uncomfortably into a chair several feet away, “…my name’s Betty.”
Despite the constant flow of patients, I hadn’t had many conversations with my fellow sojourners because of the efficiency with which the place operated. Some faces I knew because most kept appointments at the same time every day, but our exchanges were seldom more than a brief hello or goodbye, with a smile of encouragement.
That day Betty and I had time. She asked why I was there, and I delivered the nutshell version I had mastered over the unexpected summer events. Mine was a stage zero breast cancer, contained and treatable. The radiation treatments were intended to dramatically reduce the chance of recurrence after two surgeries. All seemed to be going according to plan, and I added, “God is good all the time.”
“Yes,” she affirmed. “Yes, he is.” She nodded silently for several seconds before confiding her situation.
“I was diagnosed on September 17th.” When she said “17th,” her voice broke. Tears clouded her eyes, but she willed her composure into place and continued. “It’s in my bones now.” She rubbed her hand down her left hip and leg, explaining the slow movement I had noticed. She was in pain.
“It” had metastasized; the oncologists told her it was very bad. She insisted that they give her no estimates of the number of days she had left, only tell her what could be done. Her ten radiation treatments would be followed immediately by chemotherapy. The small pool of tears held precariously in place by her bottom row of lashes hovered dangerously near the edge as her eyes crinkled when she smiled, as if she were trying to comfort me.
“I think we should pray.” The words slipped from my mouth with no forethought. She nodded. I rose quickly to move beside her, but instead of keeping her seat as I expected, Betty rose to meet me. We joined in an embrace that seemed years in the making and began to pray aloud together.
We thanked God for his goodness. We prayed for strength, peace, and—yes—healing. I could feel her body strengthen as we called out praises and supplications.
As we sank back into the chairs and tugged tissues from the box, the tech came to get Betty. She smiled softly as she limped to the treatment room. I continued to pray until she returned. We shared one quick hug, and I went to my treatment not knowing if I would ever see her again.
Thankfully, I did see her again. Almost always, we had time to get to know each other better. We talked about our children and her grandchildren, the weather, and how we were feeling. Some days she merely moved slowly; on others she was in obvious pain, walking with a cane or rolling in a wheelchair.
One day I met her daughter, Felicia, in the outside waiting room. I had only intended to introduce myself, but she clasped my hand in both of hers and asked me how her mother was doing. She rolled her eyes knowingly as I told her that Betty was smiling.
I looked into her eyes and told her, “Your mother is strong and beautiful, and she has touched my heart.” We shared a hug, then dried our eyes, and I left with a promise to see her later.
On my last day of treatment, I brought a scarf that I thought Betty would find pretty to wear during her upcoming battle when the chemo would drain her energy and, maybe, that beautiful smile. I found a card with a picture of a small girl pushing a huge boulder up a hill and gave that to her as well—a reminder that all things are possible with God.
Observing our prolonged, hug-filled goodbyes, a nurse said, “My friends are always telling me what a hard job I have. This is what I mean when I say this isn’t all bad.”
Outside of the walls of the radiation therapy center, Betty and I came from different backgrounds and different circumstances. However, that first day, when we found ourselves praying together, she and I only knew we had two things in common: the uncertainty of our health and the certainty that God was in control.
In those days, our friendship, rooted with seeds of cancer and faith, grew with understanding as our community swirled with tension. Would we have crossed paths or become friends if not for the interloper of cancer? Probably not.
I called Betty a couple of weeks later, left a voicemail, and got a call back a few days after that. “Renee, this is Felicia. I just heard your voicemail. Mama died on Monday.” Her words hung heavy in my heart as she cried. God, it seemed, wanted Betty home. She was spared from any chemotherapy, and her grieving daughter was grateful that she’d been able to spend so much time with her mom in the last few months.
At her services, I realized how much I didn’t know about Betty. Not surprisingly, the pews were packed with people who loved her, other hearts she had touched. But there was only one other person of my hue in the building. I spent a moment at her casket, then found Felicia, who introduced me to the rest of the family.
I talked to the man seated next to me about Betty and heard several friends and family members share precious memories. Betty was feisty and determined and loving. I knew those things. I did not know she was very involved in politics. As passionate as she was about politics—which can be a divisive topic—we never mentioned it in our waiting-room world.
Her life had many interesting facets, and I wished again that I’d been gifted with the chance to know her better. The testimonies drew my mind to our differences, but when the soloist began to sing, I felt anew the passion that joined us when Betty and I prayed.
“Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”
Sicknesses, whether they be a bump in the road or a long-term detour, have a way of reprioritizing your calendar and your life.
My fast friendship with Betty, like a moonflower that blooms in the evening and dies in the morning sun, reminded me of several things. This isn’t all bad. As the nurse pointed out to us, there is always good to be found.
In addition to Betty, I met a lot of beautiful people during my experience, including oncology professionals who have the gut-wrenching job of caring for people with terminal illnesses every day.
Don’t assume you know someone until you do. The differences in our skin, eyes, and hair has no more impact on our intrinsic worth as a human being than the clothes we wear. Unless we’ve met, do you know my circumstances? Do you know Betty’s?
God is in control. Dealing with any unexpected illness or event reminds us that we do not control our moments, much less our days. I know God wants the best for me, and that is why I have no trouble embracing his sovereignty. What is in my power is how I live the days that he allows.
Counting your blessings changes your outlook. It can start as simply as reminding myself that I have two working legs to get out of bed. By the time I get to the people in my life, I am flooded with gratitude for the innumerable blessings that are mine.
One of the greatest blessings is that friendships don’t have to be long to last forever.