My friend Carol Hunter died this past Sunday morning at the age of 68, of cancer.
I wrote to her recently about how much her teaching and life have meant to me:
I think the third term of Humanities during my first year at Earlham was the most time we ever spent together, gathering in the Meetinghouse Library four days a week to talk about the works of Willa Cather, Anzia Yezierska, Amílcar Cabral, Basil Davidson, Ayi Kwei Armah and others. I remember the gentle but persistent way you encouraged us to think, to organize our thoughts, and to share them in mature and helpful ways. I remember your way of talking of really hard things about the nature of the world - historical and modern alike - with a tone that was serious but encouraging. And I remember your overall kindness as a professor...I want to thank you for the life that you have lived, the challenges to heart and mind that you laid down for your students, and the ways you have shaped the rest of us through your time in this community and the way you have been as a family. I am grateful to you and for you.
My friend Roland Kreager died on May 28 of this year at the age of 65, of cancer. His obituary only begins to paint a picture of what a kind, active, generous, loving soul he was. He worked hard to create a world that was more just and equitable. Roland surprised me often with his ability to find good and hope within complex situations, even horrible ones. Even within his experience of cancer.
I can only hope to have a small piece of both Carol's and Roland's tremendous perspective on life as I grieve their deaths and feel anger and sadness at how quickly and profoundly a world can be turned upside down by illness.
Unfortunately this particular kind of anger and sadness is not new to me, or to many other people.
And it feels like cancer is everywhere.
I have seen too many people live with it, suffer under it and die from it in the course of my life. In some cases it has come quickly, in other cases with a slow unfolding. In some cases I have been up close and in the room, in others just peripherally aware of the toll cancer was taking on a loved one or acquaintance. Robert, Jesse, Pam, Norma, Sally, Sarah, Stephanie, Dan, Cynthia, John, Denver, Evelyn, Jill, Alex. The names go on and on, often more than I can bear to remember at once. And then there are the many people who have fought cancer so privately that we don't even know what they've endured.
In many ways each person's story is different and deeply personal. In others, they are variations on a theme of doctors, tests, surgeries, treatments, more tests, recoveries, setbacks, transplants, donors, more tests, more doctors -- most all of it horrible, some of it helpful. There is death and there are endings, but there are also stories of survival, where cancer is a chapter that is not the last one.
I know there are many people working on making cancer less present in our world. Between medical research and studies, drug trials, advocacy groups, fundraising organizations, projects that help make the lives of cancer patients and their families easier, and the many walks and runs that help keep these efforts and related public awareness going, it seems like the response to cancer is as omnipresent as the disease itself. This is heartening and amazing, but also largely about the future. It is important and necessary, but it doesn't bring people back. The strength, self-discipline and bravery required to confront cancer is admirable, and yet too often not enough to overcome it.
On the best days, I can be grateful for the ways in which modern medicine has changed the fight against cancer, and greatly improved chances of success and/or quality of life for those facing it. On other days, hope is hard to come by.
Today, I have fond memories of Roland telling me about the times where, despite his health struggles or other worries in the world, he was still able to find and appreciate the good stuff of life. Today, I have fond memories of talking with Carol and her family about confronting injustice and building community, and how they experienced joy along the way.
Thank you, friends.
I'm so sorry.
Rest in peace.