Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Mon 3/5/2007 2:36 AM
Random Thought: A 'Cancer Friend'

Hanging over my computer, among other things, is something I wrote twelve years ago in a Random Thought I called "The Heart of Teaching." I read it every morning. Itís one of my spiritual caffeine kicks that kick off each day:

                        How often and easy it is to leave the human reality of education unrecognized, let 
                        the fact that people are the key to education go unacknowledged, and ignored the
                        truth that education is a living thing which requires constant attention to detail, 
                        upkeep, time, effort, nurturing, nourishing....I think we should think less and feel 
                        more.  We should hear less intellectual talk and more compassion talk.  We have 
                        to exercise our feelings. Feelings have meaning only to the extent that we act on 
                        them.  We have to teach from the heart and with the heart, not just the brain. Each 
                        day we have to enter class with love and leave it with love...I will go out on the 
                        limb and say that the absence of heart is the greatest ailment of education. I will go 
                        even farther out on the limb and proclaim that the heart of education is an 
                        education of the heart.

. I've been looking especially intently at those words this past week. It was last Tuesday that this paragraph took on a human face. It was about 5:30 in the afternoon. I was heading home thinking excitedly about how something new I had tried in class had been a whopping success, but I was really looking forward to being with Susan and our traditional early evening relaxing glass of wine. A young lady, whom I didn't know, was sitting on the concrete bench by the building entrance. As the doors closed behind me, she got up and rushed over.

"You Dr. Schmier?" she asked.

ďYeah,Ē I answered.

ďYou donít know me, but that doesnít matter. I read that talk you gave to the Relay For Life people in the Spectator about you having had cancer and how you dealt with it. Iíve been waiting for you. I got to talk with someone. My friends tell me that youíre someone who cares about students and who I can talk to. I know itís late, but do you have a few minutes for me? Please."

I looked at her tortured face and heard the urgent tone in her voice. Her teary eyes were pleading. She looked beaten. Susan and the wine could wait a few minutes.

ďSure. Letís go over there and sit down,Ē I softly replied.

We went across the pedestrian walk and sat down on a bench. I listened as she told me with words that still reverberate in my soul, although donít hold me to every word.

"Iíve been feeling a lump in one of my breasts lately. Everyone says Iím too young for it to be what I fear it is, but I am so scared its cancer. I'm so afraid my breasts have betrayed me. Everyone says it's probably nothing. Nothing? Theyíre crazy! Cancer runs in the women of my family. My mother had it. My two aunts had it and so did my grandmother. Cancer has been deadly in my family. Don't worry? Shit!! I canít think of nothing else. I canít sleep. I have no appetite. Iím afraid to call home. I've got mid-terms all this week and papers due, but I just don't give a damn about taking exams, and writing papers. I canít keep my mind on studying. I don't care if I pass or failed. I just don't care. That all seems so unimportant and useless. I told my boyfriend and heís no help. He doesn't know what to do or what to say. No one really does. All he did was to ask me if it was catching, the asshole. I haven't heard from him in days. I'm beautiful, but I'm afraid I'll be so ugly. How can I be sexy? Who will want me? Who will hold me, touch me, and love me? I'm supposed to be energetic, but I feel so drained. I go the Student Center every day to work and am in peak shape, but I feel so weak and in a dark valley. I look in the mirror and it looks shattered. I think of how it will be to look bald and pale and like a skeleton. I remember that horrible sight of my mother when I was a youngster. Everything is suddenly out of whack.

Before I could say a word, she blurted out, "And, please, don't send me away. Don't tell me not to worry until I go a doctor. Don't tell me to go to a councilor or a support group. Maybe later, but right now I just need a loving 'cancer friend' who has an idea of what Iím going through.Ē

"One night,Ē told her quietly, ďabout two weeks before the operation to take out my cancerous prostate and two weeks after my wife and I had seen a high-powered consultant who told us about the probably physical consequences of the cancer, I lay in bed awake. Like you, I couldnít think of anything else. A bunch of stuff was racing through my mind in spite of the fact that all the doctors told me not to worry. I got up out of bed, went into the bathroom and got one of my wifeís mirrors. It was about three in the morning. I took the mirror with me into the living room to think. Maybe Ďto feelí is a better term. I had been conjuring up all evil images of the impact of possible incontinence and impotenceóand death, even though no one really talked about that because we caught the cancer in its earliest of stages. All the words of all my well intentioned friends and the doctors weren't much help. I sat on the sofa. It was pitch black. I was quiet. I held up the mirror and looked at myself with my heart's eye instead of my mind's eye or my body's eye. And, I saw myself not physically through my 'eye of the beholder," but soulfully through my '"I" of the beholder.' And, in that dark I saw my true beauty and my true humanity. I saw that no matter what would happen physically, I saw what really mattered. No cancer could eat away my nobility, sacredness, worth, dignity, spirit, zest, ability, talent, creativity, imagination. No operation could take out my enthusiasm for life. That realization of where my true beauty is, lit up that darkened room. I took a deep breath. Everything was fine after that. I went back to bed, snuggled up against my wife, and slept like a baby. And, have been ever since. So, every day I smile, every day I laugh, every day I dream, every day I see beauty, every day I see my own beauty, every day I am enthusiastic, every day I am intensely aware of the preciousness of this day, every day I feel--deeply feel--the joy of living. They tell me that they got all the cancer out. They tell me that I am cured. Maybe. But, I donít surrender to the fear of what might happen if thereís an errant cancer cell floating around and growing inside me. I donít give up this day for fear of what tomorrow will bring.Ē I paused and whispered, ďFind yourself a mirror and see if you can find yourself. I canít think of anything else to say that doesnít sound trite.Ē I paused and then said in almost a whisper, ďI don't know if that helps.Ē

"Yeah, it helps,Ē she signed quietly. ďI feel better just because someone understands and respects my fears. Thank you for being my 'cancer friend' and telling me how you felt and acted, and not telling me how to feel and act."

We talked a bit more and agreed to talk whenever she needed a non-judgmental soul. I still didnít know who she was, and still donít, but as she walked away, I thought to myself, "Leo Buscaglia was right. All she was fearfully, and passionately, asking was for a human being to take her human hand."

And, so many, far too many, academics think that we classroom academics are not in the people business? They assert that what happens outside the classroom to each student has no bearing on what happens inside the classroom and is of no concern of theirs? They think that what is happening inside each student doesn't shape his or her performance and is of no concern to theirs? How wrong they are!

I slowly got up, walked home in what seemed like slow motion for that now desperately needed glass of wine, the comfort of my Susan's arms, and the soft "I love you" that will I knew invariably would flow melodically from her heart and lips.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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