Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Wising up to the why's

"Why is that another cow?"

It was a sincere and softly spoken question from Elle, the 3-year-old daughter of Dennis, my friend and then-driver of the car headed towards our weekend vacation venue. We were driving past some fields and every so often pointed out a mountain or an animal to the only child in the car. Dennis was used to his daughter's queries and, with a bit of wit and probably some resignation, he answered, "Because it's not the same cow."

*Slow clap*

I, on the other hand, was still processing the question. I don't remember being as puzzled by a question as much as I was puzzled by Elle's. I had to repeat it loudly to myself (and to my small captive audience in the car) a few times. "Why is that another cow??? Why. is. that. another. cow??? WHY IS THAT ANOTHER COW!?!"

I loved that question.

Elle, probably thinking of another amazing question
("Why are they always trying to feed me?)

I loved how I couldn't even begin to deal with how potentially complex and mysterious it was. The rational side of my brain knew that all Elle really wanted to ask was why there were so many cows by the roadside, or something. Something simple. But the way her new-ish brain developed the syntax of that question using her current vocabulary threw me off-balance for a few long minutes (also, there was nothing else to do in the car). I couldn't handle it. WHY IS THAT ANOTHER COW?

Why, indeed.

I think I've had my fill of why's recently. One particularly big 'why' is still resounding in my head after one fateful day in June.

It was June 13, 2012 – two days after Rafa (Nadal, for anyone who does not know me or has not seen my Facebook wall) won his seventh French Open title. Interestingly, even before Rafa won, I had frequent happy thoughts of how my life was good and perfect. So after he won, I was beside myself with glee (the kind of glee not associated with that sickening TV show that everyone assumes I like). However, at the same time, my gut was telling me it was the proverbial calm before the storm and that I should brace myself for the inevitable curve ball.

And a curve ball of curve balls it was.

The phone rang and woke me up. It was my friend Joemar. He needed to tell me he had cancer.

Cancer. Joemar. Advanced cancer.


After that unforgettable call, my days were filled with one befuddling question after another, each one heavier and messier than the next. Questions on disease and faith and life. Questions I have been trying to put off ever since both my parents, at different times, were also diagnosed with the same illness. In dealing with parents though, I discovered that, when faced with their chronic or major medical conditions, I was a doctor more than I was a daughter. Although it doesn't always work, at least I have a handy coping mechanism for whenever my parents' health becomes an issue. (Or so I think. To whoever is listening: This is not a challenge! I do not want to test my coping mechanism!!!)

Unfortunately, having to deal with the same kind of major disease in a very close friend brought out a kind of panicked, unreasonable, emotional state that should manifest only in noontime gameshow contestants and bad actors. Like an inconsolable fool, I fell asleep every night on tear-soaked pillows, which I dutifully refreshed with new tears when I woke up. For almost 2 weeks, I failed to deal with anything else except work and the barest of hygiene, and drowned out the why's in huge piles of junk food and dessert. Life became just one distraction after another. I handled the news so poorly that when my sister saw me during that timeframe, all she could say was, "You look like hell."

(Sisters: When mirrors aren't enough.)

Joemar, on the other hand, had the kind of healthy, positive attitude most doctors could only hope for in their patients. One could say that he is relatively young (Sorry for the 'relatively', Joemar. Cancer doesn't get you off the hook all the time.) and fit so it's probably easier for him ... but cancer is cancer – being diagnosed with it and having to deal with treatment and its complications are life events you could not possibly prepare for mentally or spiritually. And yet there he was, being all happy and hopeful and grateful.

Ever since the day we found out he had cancer (it turned out to be advanced lung cancer) and after getting most of the technical treatment-y stuff out of the way, I have not seen Joemar particularly sad or worried about anything. Naturally, the time he had to tell his family and friends about his disease was a heavy one, not without his own tears and apprehensions. But negativity could not and will not overwhelm or paralyze his spirit (it also helps that he has 14,263 loved ones praying for him). To my knowledge, his biggest recent 'issues' have been where to eat for lunch, what will happen next on "Be Careful With My Heart" (the local soap that coincides with his radiotherapy schedule, according to his excuse), how not to be fooled by the fake parking slot in the hospital basement, how to explain Charice's indescribable hair on X Factor Philippines (OK, this is more MY issue than his), and what to give his oncologist (hi Tito Dennis!) for his birthday.

And speaking of birthdays, it's Joemar's birthday today.

*Cue "Blow out all the candles ..." and the Bellestar dancers*

To say I'm grateful for Joemar is like saying I'm just somewhat thankful that my mother gave birth to me or I'm just a bit satisfied that my father was a good provider or I just kinda sorta like hanging out with my sisters. I do not have enough superlatives in my arsenal to quantify the value of a good friend. For now, suffice it to say that Joemar is the brother I never had and the friend I aim to be someday. And that I hope this birthday is his happiest yet, despite of – and, somehow, because of – cancer.

"Why is that another cow?"

"Why does oneofmyverybestfriendsinthewholewideworld have cancer?"

Maybe some why's don't need to be answered. Maybe 'why' was invented to send our cerebral gyri into a frenzy and slap our complacent cheeks into an instant but full appreciation of the present. And what could so easily be taken from our present.

"Why ... were we taking our picture at the hospital?"

These days I can think like a doctor again. I'm calmer, I've forgotten most of my petty issues, my eyes are dry most of the time, and I can be a functional driver-secretary-assistant-lunchmate to whoever needs me, particularly that masked person in the picture on his way to healing who has made me more thankful and hopeful and at least 10 pounds heavier.

(Note to Joemar: Weight gain, schmeight gain. I will still claim that Dilly Bar from your freezer.)

(Note to Joemar, epilogue: Happy birthday!)

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