Ten years after cancer diagnosis, a few thoughts on survival

I went in for chemo a few days a week. I’d see a lot of the same people, on similar treatment schedules. My buddy was Eileen, late 30s, married, two kids, already hairless but she’d draw on her eyebrows because people look really weird without them.

If she was feeling good that day, she would draw them on herself. On bad days, her husband would do it for her, which was so sweet, but she’d always look a little surprised, or quizzical. I offered to take on the bad day eyebrows, much to her relief. We tried different looks from my Kevyn Aucoin “Making Faces” book: Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn, Audrey. All the great eyebrows.

Eileen and I both loved “Starting Over,” which was this awesome daytime reality show that was like “The Real World” but with middle-aged women who’d made bad choices. Toni Braxton’s sister Towanda was there. Turns out there are five Braxton sisters, who knew? They started out as a group, like the Pointer Sisters. But Toni was the one that got discovered, broke up the group, and Towanda Braxton was bitter. Great TV.

There was this other guy, Richard.

If he got to the hospital before me or Eileen, he would watch “Matlock” on TBS. If we tried to change the channel, he’d holler, “Hey, hey, I was watching that!” So we’d miss out on Towanda Braxton and have to watch Andy Griffith be all folksy and solve crimes.

One day I came in and Eileen was parked directly in front of the TV with this huge grin. I asked, “Where’s Richard?” and she got all giddy and yelled, “He died!” And it was so great that he died when he did, because Towanda Braxton had decided to write her first single, with nothing but moxie and a rhyming dictionary to guide her.

Tip from Towanda: “bitterness” rhymes with “pretty dress.”

People have told me I was spared for a reason. It’s a lovely sentiment, but doesn’t it imply that people who didn’t make it died for a reason? Sure, Richard dying meant no more Andy Griffith, but that hardly seems like justification for killing the man.

Eileen had two kids. I was a young gay guy with no dependents. Only one of us survived. And Eileen’s departure ended up taking much longer than any humane person could justify. What reason could there possibly be for that?

I couldn’t visit Eileen in her final months because we were both immunosuppressed; our reunion would have been as toxic as a Braxton family reunion. She was in the ground before I ever knew she was gone. I could never find the words to ask what eyebrows they gave her. I know she had strong opinions on the subject.

We all have our talents, our passions. The skills you cultivate help you take advantage of the opportunities in front of you. But those moments, when Babyface tells you to leave your sister act and record “Unbreak My Heart,” or when you conquer an enemy fighting you from inside your body — that isn’t design, it isn’t aptitude. You are merely fortunate.

And it gives you a sense of urgency, to do something worthwhile with the time that you have, because you know that you don’t deserve it more than anyone else. You’re lucky. Thank God. You’re lucky.


Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.