The Fringe Benefits of Cancer

by Chris Hlad…

My friend Phil is a genuinely good human being. I’ve known him for some thirty plus years, and I’ve never had a bad thing to say about him. Until now, although I think ‘bad’ is much to strong of a word to describe my current thoughts. Perhaps odd would be a better choice, wouldn’t you agree? Oh yeah, you haven’t read this story yet. So sorry! Please continue.

Phil and his wife Martha were high school sweethearts who managed to stay together through college and inevitably got married shortly afterwards. Now, given the longevity of our relationship, I’ve seen Phil happy, sad and everything in between. When he got married, I swore I’d never seen him so happy, and I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he’d be any happier.

That all changed when his first and only child was born, a beautiful baby girl that they named Penelope. I was there at the hospital, of course, and when he came out and told me that his daughter and wife were all healthy and okay, he was absolutely beaming. It was infectious, too. If I’d been happy for Phil and Martha at their wedding (which I was), this was ten times that. Why? I’m sure part of it was me feeding off of Phil’s happiness, but there really isn’t anything quite as magical as a new life being brought into this world, now is there?

Well, it was my absolute privilege to watch Penelope grow from an infant completely dependent on her parents to a little person, still dependent on her parents, of course, but no longer ‘completely’.

Everything was going great in their lives until they reached a major stumbling block: the big C.

Yes, the dreaded cancer.

Phil told me many times that he wished he’d been the one diagnosed (a sentiment he shared with Martha), but no, it was Penelope, who was all of twelve years at the time. It was a devastating time for them, although they always did their best to keep brave faces, I’m sure for the sake of their daughter.

It was only in private that Phil confided in me, telling me about all of his fears and the great burden of sadness that he and Martha were carrying.

As is normally the case, the one with the cancer was the one who was doing the best with it. Penelope, at least to my knowledge, never complained. Children, me thinks, are a lot wiser than we give them credit for. I’m sure that she must have been terrified and in a great deal of discomfort, but I’m sure she was keeping such good spirits because of her parents.

No matter how hard they tried to hide their own pain, Penelope was able to see right through it.

She went through all of the treatments – which left her skinny and hairless – but her heart was as strong as ever. After the chemo, the Doctors said she was in a kind of holding pattern, and that they’d just have to wait now and see what the cancer did before deciding what to do next.

It was during this holding period where I was finally able to get my friend out for a basketball game. It was the playoffs, so the only way to get good tickets was to pony up and pay a broker an exorbitant amount of money, which wasn’t going to happen. A. I didn’t have it and B. I’ve always despised ‘brokers’, which, in my eyes, are on the same level as lice.

So we sat in our crappy seats, both of us with overpriced beers in our hands, and watched the game from a distance, which means we watched it on the monitor. I know, I know, we’d have had a better view if we’d just stayed home and watched it on TV, but there is something about being there that makes it all worth it.

As we were leaving the venue, we naturally had to walk down, and as we approached the better seats, Phil pointed to a handicapped sign. His face lit up.

“What?” I asked him.

“Do ya’ think…”.

“Phil, what?”

“Oh, nothing. Never mind.”

And that was the end of that discussion.

The next day, much to my surprise, Phil called me and asked if I wanted to go to another game that night. I told him of course, and he picked me up at four thirty that afternoon. There was another surprise waiting for me in the car, however: Miss Penelope was there all decked out in Lakers gear.

I couldn’t have been happier! I was absolutely thrilled that she’d be going to the game with us! I didn’t know what the protocols were of staying in when you’d gone through what she’d gone through, but I imagine being cooped up in that house all day couldn’t have been good.

When we got to the arena, I was quite surprised when Phil didn’t walk us up to our seats, but walked us down. I knew there was no way he’d shelled out the kind of cash our seats were worth, but when we sat down, it all became clear: we were sitting in the handicapped section.

And I’ll tell you what, nothing gets you better customer service than a kid with cancer sitting with you. The real magic, though, was that Phil told me he’d gotten these tickets at face value because he was bringing a handicapped patron.

And that was just the start of it.

Phil started going out like a wild man, always with Penelope in tow. I can’t tell you how many free upgrades he got or how many comestible he got comped, but I’m sure it was ridiculous.

Hell, he even went so far as to sign her up with the Make a Wish Foundation, you know, the one that gives kids with terminal diseases whatever they want somehow? I never thought he’d stoop so low, but he actually used Penelope as a tool to get to meet his favorite band!

She was just a child and went along with the whole thing, of course, but I found his behavior disconcerting, which is a much better adjective than the previously mentioned ‘odd’ that I brought up at the beginning of this little tale.

Well, thankfully Penelope’s cancer went into remission, and eventually she was declared cancer free!

Phil, Martha and Penelope were ecstatic, of course, but I swear I saw just a little hint of disappointment in Phil’s face when he told me the news.

And, ten years later, seeing the world as an adult, Penelope called Phil out on his ruse, which he had to ante up to.

Their relationship hasn’t been the same since. Disconcerting indeed!

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