Ed is dying of pancreatic cancer. All year we’ve been getting e-mails about his diagnosis, then his prognosis, then his treatment progress, then his updated prognosis. The most recent e-mail says he has a few weeks left, if we’re lucky.
Ed’s a close friend of my partner’s family, so I’ve gotten to know him a bit. We’ve had dinner at each other’s houses and he’s been at all the important family gatherings. We’ve seen his grandchildren’s baby pictures and laughed at his jokes — he’s a warm, funny man with good stories and a big heart. Before he became ill we heard about his retirement fantasies, dreams he’ll never have a chance to live out, barring a medical miracle.
It’s one of those brutally painful realities that as I find myself dealing with the emotions around the illness and looming death of such a wonderful man, I also find myself preparing to attend the gala celebration for the Mautner Project for Lesbians With Cancer. Mautner galas are always bittersweet — fun, classy events that you don’t want to miss, but full of reminders of why we’re all there: the pervasive nature of cancer, and the toll it takes on its victims.
I’ve known, or known of, Ed for about seven and a half years now. My relationship with the Mautner Project is a little older; I became acquainted with them when I was a fledgling lesbian health reporter ten years ago. Through my reporting on lesbian health issues and specifically my coverage of Mautner and its leaders, I got a crash course in Cancer 101. I learned about a lot of the so-called female cancers, but Mautner serves lesbians with all types of cancer, so I heard plenty about other cancers too. Before I knew it, I had a cancer knowledge base that’s similar to what I know about cars — if something’s wrong with my car, I have a sense of how serious it is and about how much it will cost to fix it. When I hear about someone with cancer, a little computer inside me clicks and I spit out a ballpark typical prognosis.
Ed’s prognosis with pancreatic cancer, I knew, was not good. He doesn’t qualify as a Mautner client, of course, because he’s not a lesbian — or even a gay man. He’s a blissfully married straight man whose wife of thirty-some years will no doubt be devastated to lose him. They have the kind of relationship that a kid of divorced parents like me can’t believe actually exists — the stuff of fairy tales, the stuff that breaks your heart when you think about her carrying on without him.
Ed and his wife, Pat, are members of the unofficial club of straight supporters of my relationship with my partner, Kim. When we bought a house together four years ago, they were among the first to bring us an unexpected housewarming gift. When Kim’s straight sister and my lesbian best friend threw us a shower before our commitment ceremony two years ago, it was a mixed crowd in terms of age, sexual orientation and gender — and there were Pat and Ed celebrating with us, wishing us the best. Two months later, they attended our ceremony and the reception, supporting us every step of the way. We couldn’t ask for better allies.
Pat and Ed are like an aunt and uncle to Kim, as close as family. Pat was Kim’s mother’s best friend, and Kim’s father, Karl, is close to her and Ed. Pat and Karl have lost a friend and partner to illness before; they’ve been through this, because Kim’s mother, Maura, died of cancer in 1989 — a fast-spreading cancer that ravaged her and took her life during the course of a summer.
Unfortunately, my relationship with Kim has given me as much cancer training as reporting on the Mautner Project did. I never met her mother, and as a result the rare cancer that killed her remains mysterious to me, but I’ve been a witness to her father’s prostate cancer and her sister’s Hodgkin’s disease, from diagnosis through remission in both cases. The family joke is that if you’re gay, you don’t get cancer; Kim and her brother have been spared and we have retrospective insight into the sexual orientations of departed family pets.
It all makes me that much more appreciative of the role of the Mautner Project in the lesbian community in D.C. and beyond. As a young reporter, I couldn’t have asked for a better organization or better group of people to cover, and being able to report the occasional stories about its clients both deepened and uplifted me. As a lesbian whose cancer risks rise with each passing childless year, I couldn’t ask for a better resource at my disposal.
As a young woman with family responsibilities, I find myself motivated by Mautner’s model of client services and plan to reach out to Pat and Ed to see what Kim and I can do to make this process easier for them. It’s something we should have done months ago, but I’ve watched Kim go through her own struggle with the issues around her mother’s death that Ed’s illness is raising. The sadness she’s feeling now, and the grief she’ll feel when Ed is gone, are both multiplied by the repressed pain of a 20-year-old losing her mother far too soon.
It’s the cycle of life, I know it is, but that simple fact isn’t necessarily easy to accept. Instead we turn to the sappy notion of Ed and Maura hanging out in a heaven-like place that our agnosticism, conveniently, neither insists on nor discounts.
And if this heaven-like place exists, there are plenty of former Mautner Project clients who’ve seen how much support Ed has given to me and Kim, and are ready to give him a hero’s welcome.
Kristina Campbell’s column appears biweekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.