The drive was quiet, tense. My friend Richard didn’t speak, the silence broken only from the rattling of my lighting kit. We probably didn’t need it.
Two days prior, the first words from his phone call were, “Dude, can I borrow your camera?”
We’re thirty year friends, and while I love him, he does not have the best track record with “borrowing my things.” Once, he borrowed my car. It ended poorly.
“Why do you need it?” I asked.
I faintly heard him swallow.
“I went to high school with a girl named Deb who’s got cancer and is about to die and she wants to make a goodbye video for her daughter,” he said in one breath.
“Want me to film?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
We pulled into Deb’s neighborhood and a wave of nausea enveloped me. Only once had I ever visited someone who did not have long for the world. I spent two hours with my uncle two weeks before he succumbed to bladder cancer.
That was family; this was a stranger. I was scared.
Deb’s friend, Stacia, met us as we walked up the driveway, my camera and tripod in hand. After a brief introduction, Stacia said, “Deb doesn’t want to be on camera.”
“Okay,” I said.
“The tumor has closed one of her eyes, and she’s puffy from the prednisone. She doesn’t want her daughter to remember her like that.”
“And she doesn’t know you, so getting her to talk may be hard.”
“I’ll do my best.”
What had I gotten myself into?
The first thing I noticed was a Christmas tree. It was August. There was either a story, Deb was a fan, or she was just really lazy. It also smelled like freshly baked cookies. There were all kinds of lamps, but the only light came from the screen glow from Deb’s friend Beth’s laptop.
“What’s with the tree?” Richard asked.
“Abby asked if her mom was going to make it to Christmas, and she’s probably not,” Beth said. “So they had Christmas two nights ago. Presents and all.”
“Deb,” said Stacia. “This is Dan, the video guy, Richard’s friend.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“You’re not putting me on camera,” she said.
“Not at all. We’ll just get sound,” I said.
I made sure the camera was turned well away from her face. I connected the boom and lavaliere microphones and got them into position. Once everything was ready, I turned on the camera and asked her to talk about anything she wanted.
She opened up her daughter Abby’s baby book and proceeded to read numerous facts about her birth, her weight and length, her lineage, and her early likes and dislikes. Abby was exactly one day older than my son, Sam, but that tidbit wasn’t enough to make a dent in Deb’s façade.
But then, she started to talk about her diagnosis and regimen. “And then, I met Dr. Needles,” she said.
A few minutes later, Deb asked me to stop the camera so that she could get a drink. When I walked over to check her microphone, I said, “You know, Dr. Needles was my oncologist, too.”
Deb’s façade crumbled.
When I turned the camera back on, Deb was a woman possessed. The baby book was never opened again as she poured her heart out to her daughter. It was a symphony of the most beautiful thoughts and ideals that I’d ever heard at one time.
As the fatigue set in, she saved her best for last.
“And don’t forget pennies from heaven, Ab. Every time you see a penny, pick it up because I’ve left it for you. I’m always going to be in your heart. I’m just so sorry that I have to go away.”
Beth and Stacia were inconsolable. I caught Richard out of the corner of my eye. His shoulders were slumped and heaving. I had never seen him cry before, nor since. I buried my hands in my face.
As we walked out of the house, Stacia gave me a bear hug, telling me it’s the first time that she has seen Deb cry. I thanked her for letting me be there.
We were now in a race against time. Deb was fading. The edit was a delicate balance of speed, married with pure purpose of giving her something that would bring her a vestige of happiness that she said goodbye her way.
I was able to get the edit to Deb on a Friday afternoon. Stacia sent me a message saying she loved it.
Deb died two days later.
I think about Deb a lot. Every day, my son Ben prays for her by name. Whenever I see a penny, and I see them at some indescribable times, I say, “Hi Deb.”
Before I had cancer, I had no idea I would ever film something like this, nor would I have wanted that pressure. Now, I look at it not just as a privilege and an honor, but a responsibility.
So many of us who survive cancer tend to forget that we ever had it in the first place. It makes me sad. As survivors, we have a skillset that can uniquely help others who walk in the steps where we once walked. It took meeting Deb to teach me that.
Thank God I learned.
Dan Duffy is a husband, dad, video producer, blogger, and accidental activist. A survivor of stage three testicular cancer, Dan has spent the better part of a decade sharing his experience with others, and encouraging patients, survivors, and caregivers to share their stories. His organization, The Half Fund, is a not-for-profit mission dedicated to lifting the veil on cancer through films and music and books.
The first project for the Half Fund is The Half Book: He’s Taking His Ball and Going Home, Dan’s own humorous, poignant, and abjectly real immersion into his own cancer story. It is currently available on Amazon in both print and e-book versions.