How to Give and Receive Comfort

What works to soothe someone's pain?
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A Surprise Call

When the phone rang just before the Christmas holidays, the voice on the other end was so tiny I almost didn't recognize it as belonging to Toni, my former college roommate. "What's wrong?" I asked. Toni and I don't speak often and we see each other even less. Different cities, different lives. But I knew trouble when I heard it. "I have cancer," she said.

Worse, it was a recurrence of the breast cancer she'd been treated for 10 years earlier, which had now spread to her stomach and ribs. She was calling from home -- she's unmarried and lives alone -- and was wobbly after her first three rounds of chemo. I listened. When I hung up, I immediately called the airline and made a reservation. Next I called my husband at work to let him know that we'd have to cancel our weekend plans. Then I called Toni back to say that I was coming that very weekend. "I'm not dying yet," she protested. "All the better," I told her.

Over the next two days, I consumed everything I could about breast cancer -- I questioned friends, searched the Internet, read up on the latest studies and treatments. One minute I felt frantic and desperate (Is she going to die?); the next, feisty and indignant (Why didn't she get a second opinion? Is her oncologist the best available?). Finally, a wise friend calmed me down. "You don't have to learn everything about cancer in two days," she told me. "Just go there and hang out with her. Watch TV. Above all, just listen."

So that's what I did. Toni and I cooked a brisket together (squaring off in our usual way over whether to caramelize the onions first or just dump them on top). I helped her choose a wig and some caps and berets from a catalog. We looked through piles of old photographs and laughed about the people we'd known and the people we'd been. We didn't talk about cancer treatments and second opinions, not really.

One night Toni asked me if I believed in heaven. I talked (a little) but listened more. The next day I came down with a terrible cold and arranged to leave earlier than planned, fearful about exposing her to a single rogue germ. "No, no," she objected. "This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me." Did I restore her thick, wavy hair? Did I beat back her cancer? No. I simply gave what was in my power to give -- some small measure of comfort.

Continued on page 2:  Comfort Is Crucial


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