I parked my car and stared at the electronic billboard: 335,993 smoking deaths this year and counting.
I took a photo. Then the 3 changed to a 4. The 4 changed to a 5.
My friend Kathy is standing in line to join the 335,995--or is it 6 now? That was last week, so the number is now probably 338,000 or more, maybe 400,000.
In February, 2011, she found out that her persistent cough was stage 4 lung cancer. Her doctor had tried antibiotics, thinking she had an infection; then antihistamines, thinking it might be allergies. He finally did an x-ray.
With chemotherapy and radiation, Kathy has survived a long time for someone with non small-cell lung cancer, but she is now getting weaker. The cells have invaded her brain, which is typical for this type of cancer.
Kathy never smoked. The billboard says "smoking deaths" because 80% of lung cancer patients have smoked or been exposed to second-hand smoke. http://www.lung.org/#
It's air pollution that must have caused the mutation to cancer in one or more of the cells in Kathy's lungs.
We live in Los Angeles, after all, surrounded by freeways choked with cars in the morning and afternoon rush hours. We're close to the Santa Monica airport and LAX. All these engines spew irritants into the air, and not all the pollution immediately blows east, as those of us who live in West Los Angeles would like.
I realized that while I was parked taking photos, my car engine was still running. We are perpetrators and victims and survivors all at once.
Kathy and I met during several years of community meetings called the Violence Prevention Coalition. There we were, trying to end the shootings at teen parties and between rival gangs, while all along the exhaust from cars and planes was attacking our lungs.
Kathy was the unlucky one who got cancer from this violence to her cells; I'm still breathing and jogging and driving my car around.
Over the last year and a half, Kathy's initial shock has changed to anger mixed with grief and fear of dying.
I noticed something new, however, during my last visit--a kind of acceptance.
"I can't control it," she says. At night this thing attacking her seems like "a ghost in the room, walking about."
She's losing the ability to walk without falling as well as control her bodily functions; she even loses clarity of thought sometimes.
She's in and out of depression and anger; she's often frustrated by waiting two hours or seven hours at the hospital for blood transfusions and chemotherapy infusions.
But she also has humor about the falling and the craziness of being tended by a caregiver.
She has gratitude for the man who loves her and for her little dog.
She's thankful for the immediate bond she felt with Rafie, her home health attendant, who laughs with her while disentangling her from tripping over the bedside commode.
"What a gift!" Kathy says, telling me that Rafie is her intellectual equal as well as a kind soul.
Two other qualities stood out during my long talk with Kathy a few days ago: wonder and wisdom.
She wonders what it will be like to die, and she wonders what there might be afterward. As an agnostic, she makes no claims to know. We've talked about this a few times in the last year and a half, but now, standing on the threshold, she's luminous with wonder in a way that I am not.
All in all, she seems to be growing wise. She's been forced into a kind of Gandhi-like daily life, giving up one thing after another: driving, meetings, work, ambitions, goals.
"But there's still ice cream," she laughs. "And Andy's spaghetti."
When I ask, she explains that he starts with a marinara sauce and adds all kinds of wonderful vegetables.
There's surprise too: "We wanted to get out of the house and drove to San Bernardino," she tells me. "That was good, but it occurred to me that even there, I still had cancer." Doing a geographic changed the mood but not the facts.
I got back in my car to continue driving east on Santa Monica Blvd. toward the Century City mall.
The billboard was still changing numbers, however, and my thoughts were still on Kathy and on one of my daughters, who has been smoking since she was a teen.