In my recent 100 more things post, I mentioned having a penpal in high school. Actually, I had a lot of pen pals, but I knew all of the other people I wrote to. I was a letter-writing fiend. I was also a big fan of a variety of fantasy authors, including Piers Anthony (shut up. I was a kid.) One day, I got a copy of the Piers Anthony newsletter in the mail (I’d called the 1-800 hotline so they would send it to me). They only ever sent me the one, but in that one was a section that was essentially people who had written in to Piers asking him to hook them up with pen pals. One of the messages said something like “Kent, 16, was once seriously depressed and would like to hear from the opposite sex.” Kent’s Connecticut address was listed for all takers.
I thought to myself, Self? I am 15. I am still somewhat depressed (who isn’t, when they’re a teenager?) And I am the opposite sex. I like writing letters, so why don’t I write a letter to Kent? And I did. I wrote him a letter. I don’t remember what I said now, but I’m sure it was full of angsty teenaged girl things. I probably decorated the envelope in some interesting fashion, as was my wont at the time. I didn’t think anything would come of it, but a week or so later there was a response in the mail, a letter back from Kent. So I responded. And he responded. He made me a mix tape; I made him a mix tape. He told me about his dream of owning a DeLorean coming true. I told him about wanting to travel around the world. He told me that he’d received tons of letters after his initial ad, but that I was the only person he wrote back more than a couple of times. I think after we’d been writing for a year or so, we talked on the phone once or twice. Our junior year, Kent asked if my mom would let me come out to Connecticut to go to prom with him (I asked; she said no), but then he started dating a girl so it was a moot point anyhow. He heard about my travails with various boyfriends, I heard about his girlfriend; we exchanged photos. He even sent me a photo of his beloved DeLorean. Kent developed the habit of spray painting the envelopes he sent me, so each one is different. And yes, I still have them in a box in the closet at my mom’s house. I kept all the letters I got in high school.
I went to college and I think he did too, though he kind of took the long way around. We continued to exchange Christmas cards but eventually lost track of one another. One time toward the end of college I googled his name and came across a site for the band he was in, so I wrote an email to the email address on the site and he wrote back! So we did the letter thing again, only in email this time. He sent me some promotional materials and a newspaper article about his band, and I even liked the songs on the CD he sent me. He started dating a girl named Christine. I graduated college and entered the real world. He sold his DeLorean. He finished undergrad. I moved to Colorado.
Again, time went on, and our correspondence waxed and waned (primarily consisting of the occasional email and annual Christmas card). Dan and I went to visit his brother in DC in the summer of 2004, so before we left I emailed Kent and said hey, do you want to come down and hang out, finally meeting in person after 10 years? He said, Sure, I’ll take the train down. And I’ll bring Christine (yes, the same Christine). Sweet! I told him. So we met up in the big train station near the mall, ten years after I wrote that first letter.
I learned some things about Kent during that afternoon that I hadn’t known before (or, I guess, hadn’t really grokked). He was a (liberal) Christian. He was a vegetarian, down to his non-leather boots. He was deathly allergic to peanut products. Christine mentioned how much she missed peanuts or anything nut-related, since he could die if she ate one of those things and then gave him a smooch. He can’t even eat regular candy bars/chocolate, since most of those things are made in a facility that also processes peanuts. So sad. We (Dan, Kent, Christine and I) wandered around Arlington National Cemetary in the pouring rain. We met up with Dan’s bro and the Lovely Katherine for pizza in the afternoon. Someone took a picture of Kent and I, friends from afar for years and years. It was a lovely afternoon and evening, and I was a little sad when they had to catch their train home, because I felt like I’d not only gotten to meet my long-distance friend but I’d made another in his girlfriend of five years.
Just a few months later, I got to go to Boston for work, and Dan came out for the weekend part of the trip. It was a short drive for Kent and Christine, so they drove down, picked us up, and we went to Salem for the day, exploring and having a grand afternoon. I found myself wishing we lived closer so we could see them more often.
When Dan and I got engaged, before we even set a date I called Kent up to give him the news and tell him to prepare himself for airplane travel. See, he’s one of those “hates to fly” types. I told him it was a great opportunity for them to finally see Northern California, and we’d love to have them at the wedding. I called him a couple of months ago to say hi and ask about a logistical wedding-related issue, and he didn’t have time to chat. We played phone tag for a while but I didn’t hear from him again until I called him on Tuesday to wish him a happy 30th birthday. “I can’t talk now either!” he told me. “Christine and I are going out to dinner with my parents. OH! And the day after I talked to you before, we got engaged!”
Woohoo! I exclaimed with joy. “Can I call you tomorrow evening, then, to chat more?” “How about tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “We’ll be going out tomorrow night with Christine’s parents because she has to go in for surgery on Thursday.”
“Surgery? What for?”
“Oh – I forgot I hadn’t told you. Christine has thyroid cancer.”
I called him back yesterday afternoon. He told me the story of how they got engaged (finally, after 8 years of dating!) and how they haven’t set any plans yet for the wedding because they want to buy a house first. And he told me how a year ago, Christine found a lump in her neck and didn’t have insurance, so she paid out of pocket for an inconclusive ultrasound, at which time the doctor told her to wait until she had insurace before she did anything further. She didn’t get insurance until a few months ago, when she had the lump biopsied and lost the lottery, as most (95%) thyroid tumors are benign. It was cancer.
Turns out, though, if you’re forced to pick a cancer to have, the kind Christine has is the best kind, seems like. I did a little research using Dr. Google and discovered that there are four kinds of thyroid cancers, and hers is highly treatable (97% cured with combination of surgery and drugs). Also? Because it’s cancer of the thyroid, once her thyroid is removed, any leftover cancerous cells, being thyroid cells, are the only cells in the body to absorb iodine. And so a few weeks after surgery she’ll be on a low-iodine diet and then take radioactive iodine, which will only be absorbed by any remaining cancer cells and kill them right quick. A targeted cancer treatment, if you will, that seems like it does the trick for almost everyone. Plus, she’s still young and (other than the cancer) completely healthy. She should be fine.
The only downside to the radioactive iodine is that she’ll be, duh, radioactive for a while as it makes its way out of her body. Sweat, pee, saliva, anything she touches will be a little bit radioactive. So she can’t be around Kent or their cats or anyone else for a few days while she’s all science-fictiony. I told Kent to tell her that she should take that opportunity to eat as much peanut butter, thai food, and anything else with peanutty goodness in it that her heart desires, since she can’t be around him or kiss him for those few days. Might as well find a silver lining, right?
Christine went in for surgery early this morning. I’m going to wait to call until the weekend, to give her time to rest a bit. I feel a little bit helpless being 2000 miles away, but I know she’s surrounded by people who love her and can provide whatever support she needs. I’ve been thinking about her today, and thinking about the trip to Connecticut (and probably New York) we’ll get to make in a couple of years when they finally get around to getting hitched. I am glad to still have Kent as my friend, and glad that he has found such a good person to be his partner in crime. And all my good wishes are going out to Christine today, who is totally going to kick cancer’s ass.