Monday, October 31, 2011

Cancer of Life

A week ago my big, huge Furness family celebrated a reunion in Las Vegas. I couldn't get a chance to join them – my parents, eight living brothers and sisters and their spouses, and a slew of nieces and nephews and grand nieces and grand nephews. But they brought me in via Skype to make a toast to my parents on a big screen.

My mother at age 82 is surviving cancer and a stroke wonderfully. My sister Robin died of breast cancer five years ago, one day after her 54th birthday. In the following speech I address a seldom take on cancer. I close with a poem from Robin, which she wrote to her cancer shortly before dying.
I would like to propose a toast to my parents, Jack and Dory Furness, who will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary next Thursday. 
When I left your bedside in Mexico nearly 18 months ago, I didn't think I'd be getting a chance to see you again, Mom. And I'm so happy to be seeing you again (even if only by Skype). I didn't expect to see you, yet here you are. What a gift! I sort of expected to see someone else at this reunion, but she couldn't make it. Robin died five years ago. And she is sorely missed. How strange our expectations can be.

Some of us have walked miles or donated money, many of us have pushed buttons, lit candles, and prayed for a cure for cancer. Sometimes I think we need to start seeing cancer as the cure, though. Cancer is a cure for our expectations. Cancer is a cure for our tendency to take so much, even life itself, for granted. Cancer is a cure for us thinking we've got everything in our own control. Cancer is a cure for us thinking it's a problem if we're stuck in traffic or late for a meeting. Cancer is a teacher, teaching us patience, strength, and love. Without cancer we have one more reason to think we're invincible, one more reason to think we're right, to argue, to wage war. Without cancer we might lose our compassion, our faith, our gratitude. 
Marriage is kind of like cancer... Sometimes it hurts almost as much as chemotherapy. But it's also as beautiful as the smell of a newborn baby. When I lie my head on my husband's chest and hear his heart beat and feel grateful that his heart is still beating, knowing it won't beat forever – that is the cancer of marriage. Putting out fires together, cleaning up floods together, racing to the emergency room together – that is the cancer of marriage. Even if you operate it away, you always feel that missing organ. Marriage, so like cancer, teaches us patience, humility, gratefulness, love... and more patience. 
Mom and Dad, you have survived your marriage for 60 years! I remember you telling me, Mom, that you wouldn't divorce Dad, but that you might kill him. Thanks to the patience your marriage has taught you both, you still haven't killed each other yet. We're grateful for that! We're grateful for your dedication. We're grateful also for the many examples you have set us. You taught us to work hard. You taught us how to make the best stuffing in the world on Thanksgiving. You taught us to look words up in dictionaries. You trusted us to climb trees and catch fish and stand at railings atop high cliffs. You trusted us to be out of sight at a playground, knowing we would come running at your whistle. You made us ice cream and cake and hotdogs that could snap in two. You taught us to clean and to sew. You taught us how to paint houses (well, half-way) and fix electrical plugs. You cleaned our fish and our shoes. You set an alarm in the middle of the night to give us penicillin, so many times. We didn't have pepper mills, garlic presses or bottled milk and the only bubbly water we drank came from the ground near Devil's Post Pile. But we had Perry Mason jello and we always had a full belly. You taught us to be good – “the goblins'll get you if you don't watch out!” You taught us to reuse plastic bags until there were more holes than plastic in them. You fed us leftovers and taught us “waste not want not” long after frugality had gone out of fashion. You taught us independence and became a great example of independence for us in your bold move to Mexico. And I know we'll be learning a lot more from you in the years to come. 
I'd like to close with a poem from a great teacher and friend. It's called “You Bring Out...” by Robin Furness. It was written five years ago at the Furness reunion in Asilomar, on  July 24, 2006. 
“You Bring Out...” by Robin Furness 
You bring out the Harpo Marx in me

Silent goofy in me
Quiet watching

Blow that bicycle horn

Smile wide innocent in me.
The monk meditator

Joyful prayerful

Trusting believer in me.
The life loving

Live wild ‘til I’m ninety

Don’t give a rip what

Anybody else thinks

Eccentric in me.
The Gandhi peacemaker

Inside and out in me.


  1. Beautiful, Fay, just beautiful. Most of my life, I've placed people in either one of two categories: teachers or learners. Now I see that we all have so much to learn, and so much to teach.

  2. Thanks, Philip. We couldn't teach if we didn't have good teachers. A loved one dying is one of the best teachers of all.