Should I choose pink polish or clear? I wondered as I sat at the nail technician’s station last spring for a manicure.
As I pondered my shallow conundrum, the salon door swung open and a frail looking petite woman entered the room and threw her tiny arms around another nail technician’s neck. “Oh, it’s so good to see you,” she said in a vibrant voice that defied her waif-like frame.
She sat next to me and introduced herself as Amy.
We talked about everything from our nail polish choices to politics, education (she was getting her second PhD at American University) and then to my children, and then religion. She is a Christian and we talked about how much she loves the apostle Paul and wants to meet him someday.
I didn’t know what was wrong with Amy but I suspected cancer.
When she left, I asked Annie, her manicurist, more about her.
I knew it.
The doctors gave her two months to live.
That was last spring.
After I went home, I couldn’t get Amy off my mind. I wanted to reach out to her, support her somehow. In our 90-minutes together in the nail salon, we connected with each other. I loved her fighting spirit, her thirst for learning, and passion for life. I loved her sense of humor, her faith, and the simple fact that even though chemotherapy was battering her poor cancer-riddled body, she had gorgeous nails. Somehow, through all of her treatments, she dragged herself to the nail salon to keep up those beautiful hands of hers.
I called Annie at the salon and asked if she had Amy’s contact information.
Unfortunately Annie didn’t have Amy’s information, and probably couldn’t have shared it with me even if she did. I’m sure there’s some rule against giving out a client’s personal information.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her and the awful news of her cancer death sentence. I knew she had to be afraid and overwhelmed.
A couple of weeks later, I again stopped into the salon without an appointment. Again, it was unusually slow. The phone rang, Annie answered it and it was Amy wondering if she could drop in for a manicure right then.
When she walked in, she again sat next to me and we talked for probably two hours. She told me about her cancer diagnosis and said, “I’m not ready to die. I’m the kind of person that wakes up with a to-do list every morning and crosses everything off as I do it every day. I still have a long to-do list. I just don’t feel like it’s my time to go.”
I looked at her with her blonde hair, dressed in what could have been kid’s sized jeans and wondered whether we ever really know if we’re ready to die.
She said, “Don’t you think you would feel ready if it was going to happen?” she asked me.
I didn’t know the answer to that. I’ve also wondered about that.
“What do you think it’s like to die? I mean I’m afraid of being alone. Will I just be alone or what will happen?”
I told her I don’t believe we are alone when we die. In fact, I said, when my husband’s mother died, we studied a few Hospice books on the process of dying and learned that many people actually see someone coming to pick them up to take them to the other side.
“I think someone you know will come and escort you. I think it will be a happy, peaceful time and that your chemical-ridden body will finally rest. You won’t have the physical and emotional struggle that you have now.”
“That makes me feel so much better,” she said. “I have a grandmother I was really close to and I’ve always wondered if I would see her when I die. Do you think I will?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the one who comes to get you,” I said.
When people die, they often smile, relax and get a look of recognition on their faces like they are seeing someone they love or someone who is familiar to them, I told her.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that we’ve been at the salon together twice now. I need someone to talk to about these kinds of questions,” she said. “If I talk to my parents, I can see the sadness all over their faces. I try to put up a front for them so they don’t know how much pain I’m in and how many questions I have about death. So it’s good to talk to someone who isn’t that close to me, someone that understands the toll chemotherapy takes and how you have to ask yourself some pretty hard questions.”
I did little talking as she fired questions at me like, “Why does God make me suffer? Why did He make cancer treatments so debilitating? Why does He want me to die? What will happen to me when I die? Will I just leave this earth and then be alone somewhere in the clouds?”
My mind spun as I tried to know where to begin. “I know the answers to these questions,” I thought but our nail appointments were winding down and how could I thoughtfully respond to all her questions in the brief minutes we had waiting for our nails to dry?
When we both left, we traded e-mail addresses, promised to stay in touch, and hugged like old friends.
“If you know more about dying and what happens to us, will you teach me?” she asked.
I told her I would send her some information from the books on Hospice and share some of my beliefs with her.
Later that week I sent her an email about my belief in life after death. I sent some encouraging quotes to help her keep fighting.
She told me she couldn’t take what her doctors said to heart so she went to Pennsylvania to the Cancer Treatment Center of America to see if they could do something new for her. She came home discouraged because they gave her some options but in the end, they were treatments that might extend her life briefly but not lead to full recovery. She continued to get chemotherapy treatments. But she refused to give up hope.
All summer I worried about her when I didn’t hear from her, I wondered how I would ever know if she died. I wanted to be able to go to her funeral at least.
In about August, she sent me an e-mail to tell me our manicurist and her assistant moved to another salon. She said she was very weak but wanted to meet for a manicure soon. “When I’m stronger and have more energy, we’ll go get manicured and talk.”
It’s a morbid admission but I scanned the obituaries during the months I didn’t hear from her. I had to know if she died. After all, the doctors told her she wouldn’t live more than two months. We were easily into five months by then.
Later, after reading Steve Job’s eulogy delivered by his sister, I thought of Amy again. I wondered why Jobs said, “Wow!” three times before he died.
Did someone come to pick him up? He looked happy and amazed as he was in his last moments.
I sent the eulogy to Amy and said, “What do you think made him so happy at the end of his life?”
She wrote back immediately and thanked me for thinking of her.
She said, “You won’t believe what happened to me! I got in a car accident and broke my leg. I haven’t been able to drive or do anything for weeks. I am not the kind of person who can just sit around though so I cleaned all the wood floors in my huge house. I wish I had a video to show you. Can you picture me on the floor with one leg out straight, scooting from one piece of floor to the next? It’s hilarious! Oh, and I wanted you to know Annie had a new baby boy and she’s doing great.”
No mention of cancer.
I wrote back and said, “You didn’t say a word about cancer. You are such a strong fighter. I am not sending you any more information on death and dying. You are beating the odds!”
Again, she wrote back immediately. She said she tries not to think about cancer because she has so much to do, like finish her dissertation.
“Besides, it makes me too sad,” she said.
What started as a frivolous, last-minute nail appointment turned into a wonderful, enriching experience that led to a new friendship and some deep conversations about some of the most important questions in life.
I thought of Amy again today as I made my Christmas “to-do” list. I wondered how she was going to get everything done for Christmas. I sent her an e-mail asking if I could help her do some Christmas shopping, wrapping or run errands for her, or even just meet her to get our nails manicured.
Now, I will hold my breath and pray she writes back.
It’s been eight months since we met. Eight months since she was given only two more to live.
I want her to keep writing those lengthy “to-do” lists and checking off all the things she accomplishes. I want her to get that second PhD. I want her to have another Christmas.
I pray she writes back.