The Kansas City Star Magazine

Cancer diagnosis brings two friends together for journey of a lifetime

Updated: 2010-02-15T10:41:00Z

By DONNA TRUSSELL | Illustrations by JEFF DODGE

And when the wind was in the south

She’d say, “I smell the sea!”

She changed. The white and gold grew dull

As when a soft flame dies

And yet she kept until the last

The sea-shine in her eyes.

From “Cerelle,” a ballad by Margaret Bell Houson, 1929

~ ~ ~

My first thought when I got up this morning was: I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to let a friend die.

Just a few months ago, Lindy Elizondo and I were gazing out over the Grand Canyon. We were on the proverbial “trip of a lifetime,” a 30-day rail pass from her New York and from my Kansas City to points west.



Today, I look at the photographs I took — there’s Lindy, there’s her 12-year-old son, Danny, there’s me, there’s the canyon — and it all seems like something from a dream that’s slipping away. Amazing how quickly you fold back into your old routine.

But today, I’m making a special point to remember.

I’ve had friends die before. Just about every cancer survivor has. But this was different.

I didn’t meet Lindy because of cancer. I knew her from long ago. Long, long ago — from the Summer of Love, in fact. Technically, a few years later, but this was Texas, not California, and the acid-rocking was still in full swing, albeit with a twang.

In June 1973, I was 19 years old and Lindy was 18. We’d both moved into a student co-op four blocks from the University of Texas. Lindy had a waifish quality, but also a gutsy sense of adventure and an appreciation of life’s abundant absurdities. I liked her right away.

That summer, I was getting over my first heartbreak, and I had needed someone who could see the good in me. Lindy was that friend.

Lindy and I basked in the glow of our first summer in Austin, when half the students go home and the city takes on the ambience of a large village.

These were heady times. One co-op member was reading nothing but Faulkner. Not for class. She just wanted a Faulkner summer.

Soon, Lindy fell in love with a fellow co-op member named Charlton. By summer’s end, the house next door had came up for rent. Lindy, Charlton and I quickly claimed it.

The house was old and had gas heaters, walls stripped down to bare wood, a front-porch swing, big trees and a built-in kitchen table and benches. It was perfect.

In retrospect, I can see how a best friend sharing quarters with a new couple was just asking for trouble, but such was the era in which we lived. Rules were for boring people.

A year later, Charlton and Lindy got married and moved out, and I went my own way. But for a little while, we three were a family.

After a few years, Charlton and Lindy divorced and later both remarried. Lindy divorced her second husband, too, but this time she had a son, whom she was raising with her longtime boyfriend.

I tracked Lindy down in 2002, when I was nine months out of my diagnosis of Stage III ovarian cancer. My survival statistics were bleak, and I wanted to say goodbye to old friends and thank them for their kindness.

•••

Now, in the summer of 2008, it was Lindy who needed someone. She was scared. She’d found out she had cancer.

From what she described, the cancer did not sound early stage or indolent to me, but I tried to play that down. If I’ve learned anything about this disease in the last eight years, it’s that cancer is unpredictable.

After she finished treatment, she called to ask me if I would accompany her and her son on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

“Please,” Lindy said. “I can’t do it without you.”

My husband didn’t want me to go.

“Too bad,” I said.

The morning of July 13, 2009, Lindy, Danny and his buddy Montana, who would accompany us the first two weeks, made their way to Grand Central Station in New York and boarded a westbound train. A day later in Chicago, they switched to the Southwest Chief.

After a 24-hour stop in Kansas City, we four entered Kansas City’s Union Station to begin the first leg of our trip to canyon country and beyond.

Danny and Montana were giddy. So giddy, in fact, they were running and leaping over lobby benches like Olympians clearing hurdles. Their squeals echoed through the cavernous building.

Hmmm. Two boys, aged 12 and 13. Signs of attention deficit disorder and God knows what else. What have I gotten myself into?

Too late now. Like a roller coaster, once the safety bar locks and the wheels are turning, there’s no way out but through.

In the past, I’d always traveled trains by coach, but Lindy has a bad back, so she sprang for a sleeper. Lindy said the cabin was tiny, with no room for a suitcase or even tote bag.

Surely she was exaggerating, I thought. But no, Lindy was quite right. The “roomette” was exactly the size of the lower berth. Floor space might accommodate a pair of shoes, as long as they were arranged horizontally.

I took the upper bunk, which felt like a yoga mat on concrete. Around 5 a.m., I gave up and joined the other sleepyheads in the lounge car waiting for the dawn to break and the café to open.

First stop was Albuquerque, N.M., where Lindy used to live. She wanted to take me on the Sandia Peak tramway, where the mountain is hot desert on one side and lush Alpine landscape — sunny and 68 degrees — on the other.

On top of Sandia Mountain, the boys seemed to forget their fear of heights after they saw the ski lift — $7 for a round trip. Montana, a city boy from the Bronx, kept looking around in all directions. He’d never before seen long grass rippled by the wind or a royal-blue pine cone.

At the gift shop, the boys bought rubber snakes, which they spent the rest of the day snapping at each other, followed by yelps of pain and howls of sadistic joy. After an hour of this, I turned around and said, “No more snake slapping!”

Then I said, “You know, you could have lived your whole life and never heard that sentence if you had not come here with me today.” Back on the Southwest Chief, we headed toward the main destination of our journey: the Grand Canyon.

It was dusk when our shuttle pulled up to Yavapai Lodge. All around me, I heard unfamiliar languages and accents, which made me acutely aware that I was standing in a special place, that people have traveled long distances to get here.

The boys were hungry. The canyon would have to wait for tomorrow. But we did make it to the storied El Tovar hotel that overlooked it. I walked to the low stone fence and looked into the blackness.

I shined my flashlight down the canyon. Danny, Montana and I could make out ledges and small trees growing out from the canyon walls. Then my light would get swallowed up by the dark.

“You see that, boys?” I said. “You see where the light disappears? That’s the Grand Canyon.”

The next morning, we walked to the rim. Lindy had the typical first reaction.

“Oh!” she said, in almost a whisper.

That was probably what I said, too, when I first saw the canyon in 1966. All I can remember from that trip is how deep and wide the canyon was. Suddenly, I understood what people meant when they said photographs do not do justice to the subject.

We took a shuttle bus to the part of the canyon known as Hermit’s Rest, and then we came back to the El Tovar. At dusk, Lindy and I had a drink on the back porch while we watched the boys play and show off their flashlights to other young visitors.

The golden lights of the South Rim walkway came on. Lindy and I said little as we sat and watched the night fall on the canyon, the boys and us. The next day, we’d be continuing on our journey. We wanted to extend this moment as long as we could.

•••

In Los Angeles, we spent a few nights at the home of Charlton, his wife, Shari, and their two children. The first night, Lindy sang karaoke for preteen girls having a slumber party.

The next night, Charlton projected slides on his living room wall. There was Lindy, 19 years old, and Charlton on their honeymoon in Mexico.

“Remember that hotel?” Lindy said, in the same excited voice she had when we were young students in Austin. “It was so cheap. Just a few dollars, but look how nice it was!”

It was hard not to notice the what-ifs hanging in the air during this part of our trip. Charlton’s marriage seemed rock solid, but even so, this visit could not have been easy for his wife.

As we were leaving, I thanked Shari.

“Not many wives would have put up with this,” I said.

She gave me a hug.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” she said.

Lindy, Danny and I took the Coast Starlight north to Monterey, where we stayed for 10 days with Lindy’s brother and sister-in-law, and then spent a few days in San Francisco before boarding the California Zephyr, eastbound to Chicago.

The train took us past Lake Tahoe, past forests of evergreens, past rivers and through spectacular Colorado canyons.

Even Danny, who emanates the coolness only 12-year-olds can muster, was impressed.

“I never saw anything so beautiful,” he said.

He thanked his mother for taking him on this trip.

Lindy got what she’d come for. When she first suggested the trip, she told me she wanted to prove to her son she could do more than just lie around with a heating pad on her stomach. She wanted to be the one to show him the Grand Canyon. She wanted him to have that memory forever.

The last two nights of our journey were spent in a luxury suite in Chicago. When we rinsed out some clothes, we looked for a place to let them dry, but we were a little intimidated by all the marble and glass.

“I feel like a Beverly Hillbilly,” I said.

Lindy laughed and said, “There’s got to be some place in this here hotel room where we can string up a clothesline!”

What surprised me most on this trip was how easily Lindy and I found a rhythm, and how closely it matched my memories from years ago. While Lindy and I had some tense moments during the trip — including some that seemed insurmountable — by now we were finishing each other’s sentences. Again.

Lindy and Danny had to leave for the airport early the next morning, so we said our goodbyes the night before. Danny sat at the desk playing a computer game, while Lindy and I reminisced about the last 30 days.

“Now I’ll have to get used to having no one to talk to,” I said.

My husband can be laconic. During this trip, I’d call and he’d say, “I miss you,” followed by silence. Ah, back to real life.

“Did you know you giggle in your sleep?” Lindy said.

“No!”

Soon we were making plans for next summer. Lindy will be healthy, and I will be healthy, and together we’ll travel to Italy.

Even as the words left my lips, I knew that what happens next summer wasn’t up to Lindy or me, but fate. Nonetheless, focusing on a trip to Europe was easier than saying goodbye or trying to find the right words to thank her for this experience.

My train to Kansas City departed in the afternoon, but I saw no reason to stick around the hotel. The place seemed too quiet now that I was alone.

As I surveyed the room, checking for items I’d left behind, I could not shake the feeling I’d forgotten something important. Finally, I realized: It was Lindy and Danny who were missing.

In the mad rush from place to place, I’d failed to notice the moment we three had become family.

It was not the threesome of 1974. Now there was a 12-year-old son instead of a fiancé. And now Lindy and I were older and definitely worse for wear. But two divorces, cancer and chronic pain had not dimmed the light in Lindy’s eyes.

That I’ll remember, along with the view across the Grand Canyon. And that I’ll take with me when — maybe next week, maybe 30 years from now — the tables turn one more time, and I will stand where Lindy now stands.

In geology, you know, it’s all the blink of an eye.

Donna Trussell is a poet, fiction writer and former film critic. Her 2008 poetry collection, What’s Right About What’s Wrong, was published by Helicon Nine. To read more about Trussell’s trip, go to donnatrussell.com.

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