Sunday, September 26, 2004

Pleasant Street

Last night we went to see a documentary called Pleasant Street at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It's about the two neighbours of the director, who herself battled breast cancer. One of her neighbours, Ken, has pancreatic cancer, and the other, Leida Finlayson, has metastized melanoma.

I knew Leida while we were both at university; the summer in between high school and university especially, I was part of a great group of friends of whom Leida was one. I didn't spend a lot of time with her individually, but she was a staple of the group, and a really super person. Eventually the group drifted apart, and I moved away, and never kept in touch with Leida; just got occasional news about her through a friend.

She was told in December 2002 that she had about six months to live; I heard about it from the other side of the continent, through our mutual friend. I was stunned, and hoped for the best, but I couldn't help feeling detached from it all - we hadn't been in touch, and I was so far away. All I felt I could do was send a card and hope. She made it through about seven months. She was 31, a year older than me.

Over a year later, I still felt disconnected from it all until watching the movie and seeing the last five months of Leida's life. At the start, she's just like I remember her, just a bit older, like any of us. Bubbly, vibrant, always positive - it sounds like such a cliche to say that about someone who's died, but it was true. She's the sort of person who makes people say "it always happens to the nicest people". She was.

And seeing her at the end, almost unrecognizable, bald, her face swollen from steroids, her words drifting from the painkillers, but still underneath it all the same voice, the same eyes, the same positivity; that's what brought it all home for me. That this is what she went through, this is what happened. This is what it was like.

I'd never seen that experience happen to someone I know. A friend of mine had Hodgkin's when I was in junior high school, but I never really saw its full effect on him, I just knew the radiation made him nauseous sometimes. And fortunately, he made a full recovery. I know someday I'll watch someone I know well sicken and die from cancer. Could be me. It's inevitable - it's a big unknown killer, and given enough people and enough time, the odds increase that someone you know gets it. But 31 years old! That's so, so young to be told that's it, that's all you get.

Right now I've got a cold - stuffy nose, sore throat, the usual - but all I can think is how Leida would love to be alive right now with nothing more than a common cold to complain about. Being alive and mildly ill is far, far better than not being alive at all.

Leida, I'm so sorry that we all take life for granted. Something like this happens, and we evaluate how lucky we are for a little while, and then it fades away and we're back to regular programming. I'm so sorry we can't even fully appreciate what you haven't got.


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