Re­mem­ber­ing Chan­tal

She looked at her fear and dared to face it.

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY SO­PHIE VAN DER STAP FROM THE BOOK THE GIRL WITH NINE WIGS

IN JAN­UARY 2005, So­phie Van der Stap was di­ag­nosed with can­cer. “The can­cer reaches from your lungs down to the liver,” the doc­tor told her. So in­stead of start­ing her new se­mes­ter at univer­sity, the 21-year-old Dutch girl ma­tric­u­lated in the on­col­ogy ward of an Am­s­ter­dam hospi­tal.

Thus be­gan a year of bone scans, IV drips, blood trans­fu­sions and chemo­ther­apy. By the end of the year So­phie was given a hope­ful diagnosis. Her lungs were clear. She was in re­mis­sion.

That’s when she met Chan­tal.

We sit to­gether for the first time at her fa­vorite bar. Chan­tal laughs and takes a sip of wine. Op­po­site me sits an op­ti­mist—a woman who looked at her fear and dared to face it. She makes me laugh, sigh and swal­low my tears. She gives me goose bumps be­cause I can’t let go of the thought that the chair op­po­site me could soon be empty.

The first thing Chan­tal did when she was di­ag­nosed, she tells me, was buy new shoes, not car­ing how long she would have to walk in them, hop­ing they would lead her to a new life. Shivers run down my spine. I want to fold her in my arms. Not out of pity, but to feel her strength.

Sit­ting here with her makes me sad. Sad about can­cer. Sad about wear­ing a yel­low bracelet.

“Hate to break it to you, but these don’t work,” Chan­tal says, wink­ing as she shows me her bracelet. She tells me the past tense is some­thing she is afraid of. That her friends will talk about her in the past tense. That

they will grow old with­out her. I know what she means. Even though things are look­ing brighter for me now, I still don’t dare be­lieve that time is on my side.

Am I ter­mi­nally ill as well? Chan­tal’s friend asks me when she joins our party.

I shake my head, feel­ing re­lieved and slightly guilty. Chan­tal, my new hero, jokes that she isn’t plan­ning on go­ing any­where soon; she only just moved into her new place, af­ter all. “But I won’t make forty,” she says. Al­though we share the same sense of hu­mor, my smile feels forced.

She says Sun­day is the worst, be­cause that’s the day you’re sup­posed to spend with your loved ones, and she’s all alone. Her fam­ily lives in France. I sud­denly feel lucky to still live with my par­ents. I think about how I could cheer her up. Maybe we could spend our Sun­days buy­ing shoes with­out won­der­ing how of­ten we’ll get to wear them.

There’s a lot we’ve had to give up,

but we have a lot left, too. We have ev­ery sec­ond, minute and hour of the day. We live for our­selves and for those we love.

Can­cer Sucks

Chan­tal sits be­side me while I do one of my last chemos. Ten min­utes af­ter I got started she walked in, and now, an hour and a half later, she’s still here. I think we’ve re­ally found each other, whether we’re shar­ing a bot­tle of wine or a bag of chemo. She is due to have a scan next week, she tells me. I ask her if any­one is com­ing along.

“You?” she asks.

“Def­i­nitely.”

Yes, we have can­cer and that sucks, but life goes on. Even for Chan­tal, who six months ago was told her treat­ment would be­come a pro­lon­ga­tion in­stead of a cure. I ask her if she has thought about her fu­neral.

“Cre­ma­tion.” Rot­ting away be­neath the ground doesn’t ap­peal to her. “How about you?”

“Burial,” I re­ply. I’m think­ing about those you leave be­hind. I can imag­ine want­ing to be burned and thrown into the wind, but my fam­ily wouldn’t know where I am.

Chan­tal and I dis­cuss coffins as eas­ily as her lat­est shoe pur­chase. And when it comes to men, we tell each other ev­ery­thing. We both know how it feels to be on a date with a guy—af­ter spend­ing three days throw­ing up or com­ing straight off an IV drip.

“Can­cer bitches,” Chan­tal calls us. A can­cer bitch can still go to par­ties and even wake up with a hang­over. But the truth is, I’ve left most of that be­hind. These days I med­i­tate, go to ther­apy, and try any­thing that might help keep the can­cer at bay. Be­cause I don’t want to pre­tend the dan­ger isn’t still there.

“Rest in peace,” Chan­tal calls as she leaves to do her grocery shop­ping. “Have a nice fu­neral!” I call af­ter her. Chan­tal gives me com­fort. The chances that I go be­fore her are slim to none, how­ever bub­bly and healthy she ap­pears now. It’s a self­ish thought, but it feels nice to know that I’ll have a friend up there in the black­ness on the day I go.

Damn. How lonely she must be.

Sec­ond Chance

The doc­tor puts up the pho­tos from my scan and smiles. The pic­tures are clean. He lis­tens to my lungs. I sigh and cough and he says ev­ery­thing sounds clear. My tu­mors are gone.

You can never be com­pletely sure, he re­minds me. But it’s good enough

“REST IN PEACE,” CHAN­TAL CALLS AS SHE LEAVES TO DO HER GROCERY SHOP­PING. “HAVE A NICE FU­NERAL!” I CALL AF­TER HER.

for me. Now I have to wean my body off the meds. I make an ap­point­ment with a phys­io­ther­a­pist to get my stamina back up. Only two chemos to go. One more scan. Then I’m free.

The thought scares me a bit. Weird how you can get used to any­thing. Even can­cer.

Now I’m tag­ging along with Chan­tal to her chemo. The morgue is on the same floor as the park­ing garage at the hospi­tal. There’s no way to avoid it.

“Scary, huh?” she says. “That I’ll be down here some­day?”

It sure is. With that in mind we walk down the hall to­ward ra­di­ol­ogy. My mood is sour. Imag­ine what Chan­tal must be feel­ing.

“Chan, are you scared of dy­ing?” “I try not to think about it.” She pauses. “It’s more a feel­ing. A con­stant feel­ing of panic.”

Still, she’s amaz­ingly re­laxed. As if she’s made peace with her ver­dict. For all the se­cu­ri­ties that have been taken away from me, I have the great­est se­cu­rity of all, a sec­ond chance at life.

When I cross out the fifty-fourth week in my agenda, I am of­fi­cially done. The nurse hooks me up. To­day I get to hold the nee­dle and un­screw the cas­ing. I mess up, squirt­ing the con­tents all over my­self be­fore she can get it into my port-a-cath. Not as easy as it looks, be­ing a nurse.

Later on I take a walk down­stairs with my IV. I don’t like it here. Whether it’s my IV pole, my port-a-cath or the wig I wear to cover my bald head, I at­tract peo­ple’s at­ten­tion and it’s not wanted. I chat with my neigh­bor about hair loss, end­ing by say­ing we hope to never see each other again. That’s the nicest sen­tence ut­tered at the out­pa­tient clinic.

The doc­tor and I dis­cuss my blood val­ues, which are on the rise, and I tell him I feel my en­ergy com­ing back now that I know the can­cer is gone. “So my port-a-cath can be taken out? Shouldn’t I leave it in for a while just to be sure?”

He shakes his head. “You’re bet­ter now. You’re done.”

Af­ter be­ing un­hooked from the IV, I feel fine. On the way home I stop for a cof­fee. I hap­pily ob­serve the hus­tle and bus­tle around me. It all looks and sounds so dif­fer­ent now that my last chemo is over.

Help­less­ness

Chan­tal and I have a snack on the ter­race of a café. I pluck at my pink bracelet. Pink is for Chan­tal, trapped in a body full of can­cer.

CHAN­TAL TELLS ME SHE’S BEEN HAV­ING A HARD TIME LATELY. “NOTH­ING IS FUN ANY­MORE. WHEN I WAKE UP ALL I WANT TO DO IS GO BACK TO SLEEP.”

As I work through the food plat­ter in front of us, Chan­tal tells me she’s been hav­ing a hard time lately. “Noth­ing is fun any­more. When I wake up all I want to do is go back to sleep.” Then she says, “I’ve been hav­ing the worst headaches. They keep me up at night. Some­times weird things hap­pen. My friend Ellen came around last night, and when I went to open the door, I for­got how to turn the key. The same thing hap­pened on the toi­let. I for­got how to flush.” “Have you seen your doc­tor?” “I’m see­ing her on Thurs­day, I’ll ask her then.”

A few days later my phone rings. It’s Chan­tal. “How’s your headache?” I ask.

“It got re­ally bad last night.”

“Do you want me to come over?” “No, thanks, I’m ex­hausted. I’m go­ing to take a shot of mor­phine and go to bed.”

“All right. I’ll call you to­mor­row. Sleep well.”

I call Chan­tal in the af­ter­noon. No an­swer. I call again and Ellen picks up. “Hi, Ellen, this is So­phie. How’s Chan?”

Si­lence, he­si­ta­tion. “Not so great. We’re leav­ing for the hospi­tal.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

I feel my first tears for Chan, who is dy­ing. In a few weeks? Months?

Com­plete help­less­ness. I’ve never felt that be­fore. I ar­rive at the hospi­tal 30 min­utes later. I sit on a bench and cry. You would think that I’d be used to all this by now, that I would know what she needs to hear. But I have no clue.

At the foot of her bed, I watch how she slowly slips away. There’s less and less of Chan, and more and more can­cer. Why is it that she’s dy­ing and I’m not?

The Braver One

Two things on the sched­ule for to­day: my scan at 9 a.m. and then on to Chan’s hospi­tal, just to be with her, to make stupid jokes that don’t make us laugh any­more.

I slide un­der the ma­chine. “Hey, look who it is!” the nurse says as she grabs my file, which is about a foot thick. “Love your hair like this.”

“Cool, right? All my own, with a lit­tle help from L’Oréal.” I de­cided to dye my short hair blond and leave my wigs home.

On my way to Chan­tal’s I pass by the morgue. Scary, huh? That I’ll be down here some­day? Chan­tal’s words still give me goose bumps. What id­i­otic ar­chi­tect planned this hospi­tal, any­way?

In the chemo ward the women have short hair; some are baldies. I fit in per­fectly. Chan­tal has the thick­est and long­est hair of them all; can­cer has a good sense for irony.

She is ly­ing in bed. Ellen sits next to her. I imag­ine the lone­li­ness she must feel be­cause she’ll be the first to go. She punc­tu­ates my thoughts by puk­ing up her break­fast.

“Show So­phie the magazine,” she says to Ellen.

Her friend hands me a glossy magazine. I turn the pages. A glow­ing Chan­tal, with the head­line “I have to live this life to the fullest.” Chan and her life phi­los­o­phy in the spot­light. Can­cer re­ally does sell: “Chan­tal Smithuis is ter­mi­nally ill. She is ex­pected to die from breast can­cer. She wants to give a voice to all those women who don’t make it. And to tell us how, to her own sur­prise, she is hap­pier than ever.”

I look at the sick girl ly­ing in bed, drugged up with mor­phine. Some hap­pi­ness.

She speaks to me in a slow, rasp­ing whis­per. “This is the be­gin­ning of the end.”

I stay quiet, robbed of words. Ellen goes to get some fresh air. The room smells of chicken broth, in a cup next to her bed. She can’t keep it down. A cy­cle of swal­low­ing, heav­ing, and vom­it­ing.

When the cur­tain opens, a wrin­kled, wor­ried-look­ing face ap­pears. The neu­rol­o­gist. His hand moves to Chan­tal’s shoul­der. “It’s not good news, I’m afraid. Me­tas­tases of the tu­mor have spread to your brain.”

Doc­tors don’t mince words around here. I look at Chan, the braver of the two of us. She’s pissed off. “Thir­ty­four,” she says. “I’m thirty-four.” It’s the first time I’ve seen her cry.

“We’ll have to start you on ra­di­a­tion straight­away.”

“And then what? Will that get rid of it?”

“It’s worth a try.”

“Will it make me go bald again?” “Yes.”

OUR CAN­CER BROUGHT US TO­GETHER AND CON­NECTED US UN­TIL THE END. I WAS IN

AWE OF HER COURAGE FAC­ING DEATH.

“I can’t be­lieve how fast it comes back. I was feel­ing so good these few months with­out chemo and now bam! It’s in my head.”

I give Chan a kiss and tell her I’ll be back soon. I run to the tram, and I look out­side the win­dow and cry, cry, cry.

Liv­ing Legacy

Chan­tal passed away in 2007. It was our can­cer that brought us to­gether and con­nected us un­til the end. I was in awe of her courage fac­ing death. Up un­til her very last day Chan­tal was full of joie de vivre and her own in­cred­i­ble sense of hu­mor. She would sur­prise me with each visit. She’d ask about what I had been up to, and joke that she had just come back from a run along the river, or she might be singing lame Dutch pop mu­sic.

Even when she was fully par­a­lyzed, she’d al­ways look for­ward to her bath, which the nurses would fill with rose petals and bath oil. I hated to see her dy­ing; I hated the fact that I had been given a sec­ond chance when she hadn’t.

To­day I’m 34, in good health, no longer afraid the can­cer will re­turn. All this makes it pos­si­ble for me to look back at my ex­pe­ri­ence. Can­cer is not some­thing to be grate­ful for. Not ever. But I have never laughed as whole­heart­edly as when I had can­cer and first met Chan­tal, and later sat next to her as she lay dy­ing. The kind of laugh­ter that brings you to tears and makes you feel alive.

My ill­ness taught me to em­brace joy and laugh­ter. But I still have days when I strug­gle with life. And on those dif­fi­cult days, it helps me to think about Chan­tal and all the oth­ers who were less for­tu­nate than me. They still con­sole me, as much as they did when they were alive.

When I think back to what I’ve gone through, what strikes me most is that my ex­pe­ri­ence is not so much about can­cer but about life. If you change one letter the word “live” be­comes “love.” If there’s any mes­sage I’d like to pass on, this is it.

So­phie lives in New York. Her sec­ond novel, The Pos­si­bil­ity of You, will be pub­lished this fall by Prometheus.

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