Happy Valentine’s Day, Lisa and Ellen

Everybody has a story.  I have often written these words, but this week I learned two new stories which will stay with me: the stories of Lisa and Ellen.  I have not met either of these women face to face (and likely never will), but did spend a long time chatting with each of them on the phone.  I admire them both for the strength they may not even know they have.

Lisa hit my car in the CVS parking lot.  Had she not left a note I might not have even noticed the scratch and dent on my “rear quarter panel”.  In fact, I almost didn’t even see her note.  I had gotten into my car at the end of a frustrating day[1] and only wanted to get home.  As I drove up the hill nearing my house I saw a small white piece of paper flapping under the wiper blade…never good.

“I am so sorry. I hit your left rear fender.” – Lisa xxxx, 617.xxx.xxxx

I read the note, which she had written on the back of a receipt from the nail salon in the plaza (a girl after my own heart) and probably swore.  Argh.  My first reaction was that this was going to be a pain in the ass, expensive or just plain unpleasant.  Happily, it was none of the above.

I placed a call to Lisa and got her answering machine and began to leave a message.  It was a real (old fashioned, even) answering machine.  I know this because midway through my speaking she picked up the phone anxiously awaiting my call.  (She has not recognized the number and wanted to see who it was before committing to a “hello”.)  She was the first to speak, apologizing profusely for having hit my car.[2]  I admit to starting out a bit angry (frustrated is probably more appropriate, but I was not prepared to drop anger all together) but that cooled instantly.  She was so genuinely sorry for what was nothing more than the true definition of an accident that it was hard to stay mad.

And then we got to talking.  She told me that she has been a little scattered and distracted as she was beginning chemo the next day.  She did not tell me this to be manipulative, but rather to further explain the depth of her upset over yet another bump in her road.  I hear cancer and immediately forget all about the car.  I ask her how she is feeling, if she is getting plenty of Zofran[3] and how she is holding up.  I share with her that I, too, have had cancer but was fortunate enough to have been spared chemo.  We talked for 45 minutes.  I know that she has never married, is 72 years old, her sister-in-law is also her best friend (and happens to be named Julie) and she lives in the town next to mine.  We talked about great restaurants there.  We talked about losing her hair.  We talked about, almost as an afterthought if she was going to pay for repairs or put it through insurance.  She was utterly lovely.  I think she may even be a nun.

I took the car in for an estimate: $1,400 and four days of labor meaning I will need a loaner.  I have already called my insurance company and we will take care of it all.  I am going to call Lisa this weekend to tell her not to worry about it.  And, more importantly, to see how she is feeling.

And then there is Ellen.  Last night my  phone rang with an unfamiliar number.  I, like Lisa had, hesitated in picking it up but not having a old fashioned answering  machine I knew that if I didn’t pick up, I might have a return phone call to make so, in an unusual move for me, my curiosity won out and I picked up.

Ellen: “May I please speak to Julie”

Me: “Who is calling?”[4]

Ellen: “My name is Ellen, I was given her name and number from Karen at the Dana Farber.”

Now it was I who anxiously admitted she had reached Julie and that I had been expecting her call.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from my fabulous oncology nurse.  With nearly ten years together, we have developed not just a nurse/patient relationship, but a friendship.  (We are even Facebook friends…big doings) When Karen called she asked if it was okay to give someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer my name and number as she is trying to decipher the options she is facing in her treatment and wanted to talk to someone who had been there, done that.  Of course I would.

My first question out of the gate was to ask how she was doing.  The time between diagnosis and treatment is horrible, frightening, surreal, obnoxious, overwhelming and, at times, unbearable and she was in the thick of it.  Her response was that she was “half crazed”.  “Only half?!” I retorted.  And she laughed.  An easy, natural and genuine laugh.  And then we talked for over an hour.

I learned that she is married to, and has been with the same woman, for better than twenty years[5].  They moved here from across the country, a move that was difficult for Ellen but she now realizes how deeply she has bonded with her community as evidenced by the outpouring of support, encouragement and love she is receiving.  I told her all about my experience, my fears and how it feels now, nearly ten years later.  I told her to accept offers of dinner, to make this about her and to not worry about not returning calls.  We talked a little bit about Jess[6] in the context of other life issues that don’t go away just because you have cancer.  I offered to show her my boobs, to be available to her as much or as little as she wanted and to answer any question about anything.  I am, as you all know, nothing if not honest. (Aside: Breast cancer messes not only with your body, but with your very identity.  To this day, I notice everybody’s boobs everywhere I go.  I never thought twice about mine or anyone else’s before all this…I swear.) And then she told me, as matter –of-factly as I speak of Jess, that she also has MS.  Wow.  Some people have all the luck.

Ellen and I (like Lisa and I) laughed frequently during our candid exchanges.  We shared things with one another easily.  Two women who I would never happen to meet both popped into my life this week.  Both are on my mind and both of their numbers are now saved on my cell phone.  I made sure to ask Ellen if she texts.  I plan to text her to tell her of her cameo in the blog (which we also talked about).  I will continue to think of these women and their stories.  I will try to remember on the tough days that everyone has a story.

I do not normally go the preachy route, but …reach out to someone today.  Someone whose story you may or may not know.  It will make them feel good.  It will make you feel even better.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

[1] Damn car moved spots on me in the Target lot and was, when I left the store, no longer in the spot that I was absolutely certain I had left it.  Turns out I had my Targets mixed up and recalled, vividly I might add, the correct spot only in a different town.  I literally walked for thirty minutes looking for it.

[2] Truth be told, it is a terrible lot.  I don’t know anyone whose car hasn’t hit or been hit in it.

[3] For the uninformed, Zofran is the magical anti nausea drug that should be hoarded even for the just-in-case moments.

[4] Visions of telemarketers dancing in my head…

[5] Go Massachusetts!

[6] I figured as a card carrying lesbian she would be cool with Jess and her story 😉

13 thoughts on “Happy Valentine’s Day, Lisa and Ellen

  1. What a great piece of writing and a great week. It reminds us all to stop and think about others that we pass in the line at the grocery store, the school lot, or the friend who is struggling more this week. Thank you, as always, for brightening my day. As a fellow cancer survivor (Ovarian) I appreciate your wisdom and words. Whenever your blog reaches my in box, I know that a treat has arrived. You are an inspiration to me. Thank you and Happy Valentines Day! ~Liz S., Milton, MA

  2. I love this. Meeting and keeping new friends, no matter what the circumstances, are such great little love stories in their own right. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Julie, It took me a long time to learn the lessons you wrote about today. You responded with openness and calm to two people you didn’t know and all of you are the better for listening to each other. Knowing that everyone has a story, as you put it so well, has been a genuinely enriching part of my life ever since I began to understand it. Thanks, Joan

  4. I felt teary reading this – the part about reaching out. I am heading to work to see three clients, and although it doesn’t count as much, I do a lot of reaching out to them and that makes me feel good.

  5. Your last two blog posts were both wonderful! You are a really neat lady and so many of us enjoy reading your thoughts about living life!

  6. I’ll be thinking good thoughts for both of these lovely ladies. I am certain you helped strengthen their resolve and fortify their spirits. I’m always grateful for your observations, lessons and perspective, Ms. Julie.

  7. Your blog especially touched me today. I have a friend with Triple Negative Breast Cancer which has sadly spread to her brain. The outlook is very dismal. We just never know how precious our lives are sometimes! Thanks for the blogs, Julie. Friendships are made in unusual circumstances sometimes – and those can be quite special.

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