Susan and Jackie in Balat neighborhood of Istanbul
I’m lucky. Oh, yeah, not so fortunate to have cancer, but…
I have friends who are willing to travel around the world – literally – to be with me. This week, Susan Colby, a longtime, dear friend whom I first met in the early days of working with McKinsey & Company, is with me. The best part of that work was the legacy of wonderful people, and Susan is no exception.
She was the first and one of the only women I worked with at McKinsey. She was also a mom and breast cancer survivor when we met. She was senior to me and inspiring in the way she integrated work and life. She’s had her priorities in order. Working with Susan was the first time I looked ahead in my career and thought, yeah, I’d like to be that person. No offense to all the men I worked with at McKinsey, but balancing work and family just wasn’t usually done at the same level. Susan and her wonderful husband Peter and adorable daughters, Rachel and Rebecca…well, that was a model I could embrace and get excited about. Susan put tight boundaries around her work hours so they could cook and have family dinners, read books, and do the things that families do. She insisted on working part-time when hardly anyone did, so she could work around being there for her family. Investing in life made her work even better, more centered, and wiser than it would have been otherwise. We became fast friends and enthusiastic coworkers. For a time, after she left McKinsey to join a company, she was even a client of mine…a truly effective, co-creative experience. She knew me when I first started dating John. I remember being so glad to see her face in the church when we got married.
You know how you have some friends that don’t live near you, but you stay together even though you’re apart? You don’t have to be together to be together. Susan has lived in DC and San Francisco, while I’ve been in Chicago and Cleveland. We made time to connect through the years, including some fun travel. When she had a recurrence of cancer, I was part of her life and did what I could to be supportive from afar. When cancer struck me, she was a nurturing ninja, knowing just what to say, sending uplifting notes and little gifts, and generally just-right empathizing with the shitty nature of the disease and the treatments.
This week is a whole new level. Susan has TAKEN OVER MY KITCHEN!!!!! There is something about coming home from chemo day, lying on the couch, listening to cooking sounds, watching her expertly dance around a foreign and small kitchen, and smelling the most amazing chicken piccata a la Susan, that is mothering in the best way. I had not 2 but 3 plates…one at midnight because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I can still use some more weight, so this is goooooood. I’m no dummy, so gratefully requested more meals. Beef tips and veggies au Susan and chicken Provencal were also on the menu. Yummmmmmm.
We enjoyed some beautiful fresh fish and iskender out as well. So nourished, it was somehow not so hard to walk all the way from my apartment through Macka Park to the Bosporus to enjoy a Turkish coffee. Ahhh, sea breeze.
We had a wonderful day with tour guide extraordinaire and friend Hakan Gurger, enjoying Galata Port, Balat, Fener, crossing the Galata Bridge, and wandering the spice bazaar. It’s a good feeling to forget why I’m here sometimes and imagine we’re just enjoying another girls’ trip. Life with treatment interrupting as opposed to treatments with a dash of life.
I’ve also slept well this week, no doubt because of her caring. Susan also, despite her own traumatic experiences with cancer herself and in her family, kept me company in all the best ways through chemo day.
What I hate about chemo day is chemo. Even nutritional infusion days are frustrating. It’s hard to be poked and hooked up for hours, unable to leave. But there is an upside to that…time. Without tight deadlines and plenty of time to fill, we talk, we laugh, we remember things we’ve done together, we share stories about family and other times in our lives. This luxury of time with such a longtime and dear friend who doesn’t live nearby can’t be underestimated. The whole Colby family is here with her in spirit. Rachel has inspired me by gracefully managing her own journey with breast cancer way too young. Susan got me through hyperthermia by reading a funny article about #vanlife sent by Rebecca and playing and dancing to music (I danced inside). The rest of the family sent supportive notes and texts. Susan set up the food, the fan, brought water, applied cold compresses, and brought a coloring book and markers (not just any coloring book!)
It’s not easy work and certainly could be triggering for someone who has been through this kind of dance before, and not just once, as a patient and a mom. That’s the biggest gift of all and what’s so hard – Susan managed to get her own triggers out of the way to be with me. That’s pure empathy. It’s so simple but so hard to do. Susan is a survivor who retained her humanity and empathy.
That’s the secret. That’s the key. That’s the healing power underneath the cooking, company, and nurturing. That compass of empathy is a guiding force that brings the best out of us, even in difficult circumstances. Metabolizing your own trauma is certainly one path to liberating that power. I can say that receiving this kind of nurturing from Susan, John, and my other friends and caregivers here in Turkey has also tempered the trauma of this experience for me. That helps too.
So, I hope when you are faced with trauma, you find empathetic nurturing, and I hope when you have the chance to help others, you can get your own triggers out of the way. I hope you have such good friends, who would nurture you and visa versa.
It’s not easy.
But it’s powerfully healing.