The Last Time We Spoke

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Start your story with somebody taking a photo.... view prompt

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Creative Nonfiction Drama Sad

It had become routine for the two of us by then and neither of us thought much of it when I held up the phone and took that hilarious photo. The two of us were celebrating my birthday more than a month late while we sat alone in a Chili’s. A single candle stuck out of a brownie sundae. We were both making faces, he with his eyes crossed, and me with my tongue sticking out in the shape of a straw. We took a couple other photos too, but they were the normal smiling faces people were accustomed to seeing on the internet. I couldn’t have been more proud to be sitting beside my amazing best friend that day.  He had been my best friend since almost the day we met, and I just couldn’t ever picture my life without Mark in it. 

All too clearly I remember staying with Mark in the hospital in the midst of a pandemic, refusing to leave his side even for a moment, and refusing to eat as long as they didn’t allow him to eat. Mark had gone in for a not-so-routine biopsy and had an unexplained seizure in the process, so the hospital kept him for several days. I slept on the hospital bed beside my friend. I ate the hospital food he didn’t want. I lived off of scraps, hanging onto the edge of both the cot and my sanity as I worried endlessly about Mark and whether he would make it out of the hospital alive. Just from the way the hospital staff spoke, I knew there was a chance he wouldn’t. I didn’t want him to be alone. 

The day they finally let Mark out, I sobbed into the kind and understanding shoulder of my brand new husband. He held me, let me cry, and told me he understood. I’m not sure he did. How could anyone understand how close we had become over the years? How could anyone understand that I had prayed so many times to take away the pain and to suffer in Mark’s place instead?

Several years ago I called Mark, crying. He had wanted to keep a distance between us, not wanting to get overly attached to anyone because of a prior cancer diagnosis years before. Mark, as a result of his own suffering, was afraid of life. Likewise, because of my own past, I was drowning in darkness. Yet, in spite of that emotional attachment phobia, Mark ordered me to get into my car and drive to his place right that moment, in spite of it being nearly midnight and knowing we both had to go to work in only a few short hours. Mark saved my life that night. I never did tell him. 

Several years ago we went for a hike in the Rocky Mountains on Memorial Day. It was the first time Mark really opened up to me about his cancer diagnosis. People at work didn’t even know the things this brave soul was about to tell me. About how he had only been sober a year when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. About how he had fought for his life, literally, and somehow overcome the odds. About how devastating chemo was, and about how lucky he was to be one of so few in the world to qualify for a life saving procedure called the Whipple to have the cancer removed from his body. He’d had his surgery, and the scar left behind was pink and swollen, much like my own emergency hysterectomy scar. He told me about how he had a 1 in 10 chance of surviving the surgery at all, and a less than 5% chance to survive the first year. Yet he had beaten those odds, still feeling like he was living on borrowed time. What a warrior! I’d managed to fight back and survive human trafficking, but this man beat pancreatic cancer!

Not long before the second diagnosis, I spent every waking moment with Mark that I could spare. We spent endless days together, exploring our town and discovering new foods. Slowly, at his pace, he began to live his life again. He rediscovered some of his favorite places to explore and foods to eat. He stopped ordering the same exact meal at every same restaurant he ever went to. He even made plans to travel down to Mexico with friends of his for some deep sea fishing. His family started to notice a change in him, too. It was a crushing blow when the second diagnosis was announced in February of 2020, all of us understanding what this would mean. He would be fighting for his life yet again. But fight, Mark did. 

This photo that I can’t seem to take my eyes off of from that birthday celebration in Chili’s that day, just the two of us, was taken at the end of that same year. Not only had he gone through chemo again, but the same Whipple surgery with such astronomical odds. Mark, once more, had pulled through to the other side. He proved himself yet again to be a valiant warrior. He’d lost a significant amount of hair, but he still had that smile. He might have lost some of the sparkle in his eyes, but he hadn’t lost all the life within them. Maybe he’d lost most of his pancreas, but he still had the biggest heart of anyone I knew. His smile in that photo lives on. He’s the bravest man I ever knew.

The best I can figure is that he didn’t want me to see him any differently than I did. He was my hero. He was my best friend. He was strong - much stronger than I was. He was a warrior! So when he was told that the cancer had returned, and spread, he didn’t tell me. He didn’t want me to know. Instead, he tearfully hugged me one day after a brief lunch of soup, one last photo together, and several laughs about past adventures. Perhaps I should have seen it as a sign of things to come, but I didn’t. I couldn’t see Mark in that light. I couldn’t picture him giving up. 

He didn’t have a choice, I finally was made to understand. The hospital told him there was nothing more they could do to help him, so he checked himself out of the hospital and went to his sister’s home to wait for the inevitable. I never even knew. Nobody told me. In all the years that he and I had been so terribly close; all those years he didn’t want anyone to be that close to him, he never admitted to anyone that he was. Out of respect for this man that I so dearly loved, neither did I. 

April 1st of this year, Mark passed away from pancreatic cancer complications. I don’t know if he ever went to Mexico or not, and there’s a better than average chance that I’ll never know. But I choose to believe that he did, and it was one glorious last vacation that he very much deserved and needed. 

I’ll miss that man for all the days of my life. I sincerely hope he finally knew how much he was loved while he was still among the living. 

April 29, 2022 18:40

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