The summer of 2002 brought frightful news to us, when we received a call from Don’s (my husband) sister, Pam, newly diagnosed with rather advanced breast cancer.
I traveled to Georgia to be with her for several weeks as she prepared to undergo further testing and begin her course of treatment.
We had to drive several hours, sometimes multiple times a week, to the cancer treatment facility in Savannah, Georgia. A few weeks into this process, her treatment began, and I would go with her. The chemo treatments ravaged her body and emotions, and it would always leave me feeling pretty helpless, and left her feeling drained and quite ill. When Pam was called back into the back, I was not allowed in to sit with her when she received her chemo.
So I sat out in the waiting room. It was very overwhelming to be one of the few healthy people sitting there. I would watch folks come and go. All ages. All colors. All sizes. Cancer picks no favorites, and is an equal opportunity destroyer. I also had the opportunity to witness how different people battled this disease and stayed strong. One lady had the most colorful, flamboyant scarves on her head. Bright shots of cheer and color. Many came in with family. A grandmother holding a grandchild despite her weakness, demonstrating that love cannot be beaten, not ever. It was very touching for me to be a witness to this.
Try as hard as you want to, sitting in a waiting room, it’s difficult not to be “in people’s business” sometimes. These are suffering human beings sitting right next to you. If you fail to notice them, your heart isn’t in the right place.
A gentleman next to me struck up a casual conversation, when it was obvious to him I wasn’t from there. My “Yankee” talk gave me away, in this hospital, set in the deep south. He asked why I was there and I told him about my sister-in-law. He told me about having cancer, and the way he hung his head, and the softness and finality of his words was demonstrative of where his spirit was in the moment. He was also there alone. No family. No friends. No one. I didn’t pry. We talked for a little while longer. I remember in the middle of all of it, just being so over-come with his defeat, I put my hand on his shoulder…and remember being afraid doing it, I didn’t want to be intrusive or make him uncomfortable. I was trembling actually. I didn’t know this guy. I’m a pretty chatty person and have no problem whatsoever talking to people about most anything, but this was different. This was personal. I couldn’t stop myself either, nor can I explain it. When he turned to look at me because my hand was still touching his shoulder, he made eye contact with me, in that moment I do remember getting a little teary-eyed. I told him that today I would be his friend, and that he matters to me, and that I don’t want him to give up.
Shortly afterward, he got called back for his treatment, Pam came out from hers and we went home.
I never saw this man again. In all honesty, after I returned back to Illinois, and resumed my own life, I won’t lie. I had completely forgotten about this encounter.
A few years later, Pam sent me a letter and a picture. When I saw the picture I remembered the man from the cancer center. In Pam’s letter, she explained running into him a few times at the cancer center. The man asked after me, and gave her a picture, telling her to send it to me. He went on to tell her, that the day we talked, he was ready to just cash it all in and quit on life. His treatment was going badly, he couldn’t work, his wife had left him and had taken their son away. He was utterly alone, scared and terribly sick. That to have some stranger throw him a ray of hope and demonstrate care, gave him a reason to continue his fight against cancer and embrace life.
His name is Louis Smales. He wanted me to have a picture so I wouldn’t forget him, and he wanted me to know what our encounter meant to him. He couldn’t have known that the day I received his picture, and Pam’s letter telling me of all this, I was fighting my own depression and loss. Don and I had just lost a baby, after trying years and years to conceive, and I wasn’t handling the loss well at all. I felt worthless. I felt hopeless. Then I get this letter, and Louis’s picture, and had to smile. My original message to Louis, that he mattered, had come back to me, giving comfort and acknowledgement at a time when I needed it.
I don’t know where Louis Smales is today, seven years later. I don’t know if he is still alive. I hope that he is. I know that the power and love of his spirit is definitely alive and well. I am not sharing this story because I want to “show-off” and it’s intention is not self-serving. I want to share it to show that words have power. Kindness given is kindness returned. That as we go about our lives, sometimes it is very easy to close our minds and hearts to the suffering of others. I think sometimes we do that because we feel like there is nothing we can do to really help, we feel helpless and unsure. An act of love and support doesn’t have to be money, or gifts, or doing some big favor. It can be something simple like a smile, a moment of your time, a sincere heart-felt word of encouragement. This is the stuff that makes the human spirit soar. Love.
Today I remember Louis Smales, and honor his battle against cancer, and appreciate that he took a stand for life despite everything being against him. I will never forget him.
(Written 11-28-2009 by Maria R. Appleby)