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    What I Learned from Breast Cancer


    Inga was the mother of two — older daughter, younger son — just like me, and hers were a couple of years ahead of mine in school. During the summers, when I would leave my kids home alone so I could go get the chemo, she would leave hers home alone so she could give it to me. We would laugh together, musing at the state the house would be in at the end of the day: chores undone, empty pizza boxes open on the counter, the potential of a summer's day squandered in front of the TV. Beneath my laughter, I'd envy the sense of security her children had — their mother heading out in nursing scrubs and sensible shoes, strong and ready to help people suffering from cancer — versus the insecurity my children were dealt, their mother sick with cancer, coming home sicker from treatment. I envied that truth of Inga's life along with all that I admired in her cool competence, her quiet authority, and her deep, calming heart.

    Occasionally, I would bring small gifts to Inga: cream for her healing hands, a linzer torte I'd baked. I'd write her notes about what she'd taught me about illness — its sanctity, its otherness, its necessity as a third, urgent presence between life and death.

    Inga became a sort of muse to me. I imagined her to be a gardener of root vegetables — beets and carrots and rutabaga, goodness planted so deep it would stoically endure the harsh Iowa winters, so deep her hardy hands would be thick with soil when digging in spring. I imagined her loving her solitude and her family in equal measures. I imagined her in prayer. She could have been a nun.

    It was in the spring of 2005, when I was climbing out of the depths of another round of chemotherapy, that I heard Inga was sick. Inga, cancer's caretaker, was stricken with cancer — a rare cancer of the tongue with a poor prognosis. I wrote to her that day. Inga, how could it be? But Inga's disease was fast and vicious. I never heard back. She soon lost the ability to speak, then to eat, and within a year she lost her beautiful life.

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