I remember as if it were yesterday. I was in a graduate school economics class and she was the girl in the seat next to me. She had a thick hank of black hair that fell to her shoulders and tidy dark eyebrows like two straight lines. She was irrisistable, and so I didn't. Rather I tapped her on the shoulder and introduced myself.
She, too, was Persian, and her name, too, was Maryam. So it was inevitable (yes?) that we would become friends. Over plates of steaming rice and heapings of fragrant khoresht, she offered political commentary and advice on my string of not-quite-right boyfriends. Maryam was the one who babysat my cat, despite the incessant yowling (recounted as if an amusing Bob Fosse musical). She always had a kind word, a tight hug, a funny joke. Her high lilting laugh was unforgettable - and even from miles and oceans away, I can hear it in my head as clearly as a favorite recording.
Fast forwarding over tragedy (her mother's sudden death) and festivity (she, a bridesmaid at my wedding), we had babies and careers to juggle. But we never ever lost touch, and she was always shining and flashing somewhere on the homepage of my life -- my friend with the same name.
And so it came as a sort of shock, her cancer. Maryam was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma -- very rare in adults. Her husband, upon hearing the news, left his high power job to care for her and never went back. Maryam had a spinal tap and a bone marrow extraction. And then there were six rounds of hospital chemotherapy, one every 2 1/2 weeks for 6 months. Her potassium levels dropped to dangerous levels requiring infusions lasting 6 hours each.
The cancer robbed Maryam of her thick head of hair and her two straight eyebrows. It also robbed her of her appetite and her desire to do, well, anything. She spent her days wrapped in a blanket, staring at the ceiling, unable to read or watch TV or (sadly so sadly) have coherent conversations with her two children.
We, her friends, whispered about her in backroom emails, worried, so worried. Her husband watched as his wife changed before his very eyes, almost like one of those time lapse photographs, where something alters dramatically (a flower opens, a volcano explodes) in a very short period of time. He missed his wife's lilting laugh -- it had gone quiet.
And the treatments didn't stop. The chemo wasn't enough -- Maryam needed surgery. The surgeons sacrificed two of her ribs as part of a complex two day spine fusion surgery. The surgery removed Maryam's entire vertabrae where the tumor was found, and replaced it with a titanium basket attached on either side with four titanium rods -- bolted with screws from top to bottom. Maryam's body was now covered with a lattice of scars, like a curious tribal tattoo whose meaning remained mysterious to outsiders.
And then, only then, did it back away. The cancer.
When I was in London, I learned about Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres, a sponsor of Blogtour organized by Modenus. Maggie's Centres provide free comprehensive support to anyone affected by cancer. They also welcome family and friends of cancer patients, knowing that those who love and look after someone with cancer can feel frightened and vulnerable, too.
We share the same name, Maryam and I. I could be her, her cancer could be mine. But here's the thing: no matter your name, you could be her, too -- the one with the cancer. And then your life would be changed forever.