It’s all in the timing

When cancer hits someone you love, everything changes. Stay with me. This isn’t a sentimental look at suffering or loss, or even an inspirational message. I’m done with inspiration. This is more important.

It’s about taking a walk with my friend Debbie.

But first: Four years ago, my previously healthy husband Ted was diagnosed with brain cancer. There were treatments, tears, ice cream, laughter – and sneaking obscene gestures at the parking ticket/meter guys in Portland once we discovered Ted’s handicapped placard meant free parking. Ted passed away last fall. There are not enough buckets in the world to hold my tears.

Now, as Debbie and I walk, we talk about everything. Cancer. Ted. Kites. Spying on our kids. Then, she asks what I’m doing that evening. Ugh. I shouldn’t have mentioned the late-night crying.

Me: I don’t know. Mmm … Might (cough) … movie.

She doesn’t miss a beat.

She: I want to see “Spy!”

What is she, a mind reader? I had secretly planned to see it that night. Alone. For reasons which will become evident.

Me: Well, uh, maybe, I mean, um …

She: Wonder if it’s playing.

She pulls out her phone. I sigh. This will not be pretty.

Me: 7 pm. Tonight. Westbrook. Want to go?


Me: OK. But there’s something you should know.

Debbie is very patient, which is another word for horrified, as I continue.

Me: I don’t share my popcorn.

She: OK.

Me: Or my soda.

She: Got it.

Me: See, about the popcorn? I have to make it last from the moment the movie starts until the credits roll at the end.

She: Uh-huh.

Me: It doesn’t matter what size popcorn I buy. I have a sixth sense – a talent, really – to make it spread out over the length of the movie. Otherwise (I hold up my hands), see these nails? Gone.

Her eyes widen.

She: OK. So you need your own popcorn.

Me: And I always bring dark chocolate and cheese slices.

She: Cheese? Chocolate, sure. But …

Me: Yup. Cheese, around two-thirds of the way through the movie. Perfect with popcorn.

She: Cheese, huh?

Me: But I won’t bring it tonight, because, you know, it smells bad. I also bring grapes, and occasionally cherries, but they make a terrible mess in one’s pocketbook. Hey, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to be laughing at a movie and choke on a cherry pit?

She says nothing. She just stares at me. When she snaps back to reality, she asks if there’s anything else.

Me: Glad you asked. Pretend that’s the screen (I point straight ahead). I have to sit back here, on the left, three-quarters of the way up. On the aisle.

She: Oh. Your neck problem.

Me: And in the rare event of popcorn deficit, so I can get up quickly. Um, do you still want to go to the movies with me? Because there’s more.

An hour later, she raises her right hand and swears she can abide by the popcorn rules.

In the lobby, I tell her about how early on in our relationship, Ted and I would buy the extra-large Sherman Tankful of popcorn to share and how he’d dig in handful after handful and how anxious I’d get because of the whole popcorn/movie credits thing.

“But,” I choke out, “he got it. He understood, and he didn’t mind. So we got separate popcorn after that. God, I miss him so much.” I reach for a tissue.

Once inside, Debbie learns there are, in fact, about 40 other things (actually, I counted 39, but let’s not quibble) that I have to do in a particular way. The theater is crowded, and to my credit and amazing flexibility, I yield to the opposite side of the theater because Rule No. 28 says never sit close to other people.

I point.

Me: Let’s sit here.

Debbie: Am I allowed to sit next to you?

We giggle.

Me: Yes, you can sit next to me. But before the previews start, I’m going to ask you one last time: Do you want popcorn? Because I’ll go buy you some.

She: No. Never. No popcorn. I promise.

I hand her a bag of chocolates.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with cancer. Well, Debbie was the clinical trial study nurse we’d met years ago at Ted’s doctor’s office. Long after he moved on to other treatments, she continued to walk through his illness with us. She became our friend, supporting us in ways above and beyond the call. That’s what cancer does. It brings human angels into one’s life.

And on this evening, watching a fairly violent but extremely funny movie, I am brought just one small step back to life myself.

Afterward, we hug goodbye. She goes home to her lovely husband and I go home alone, filled with emotions and memories of my precious Ted. It’s a good night.

That’s what happens when the popcorn is timed just perfectly.

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