Two weeks ago, I was informed that Sophie, my almost-3-year-old niece, was suffering from a rare form of cancer in her lungs.
For a second, I stopped breathing.
(As if that would help her fill her chest cavity with air).
I pressed the phone to my ear and fought past the pressure filling my entire body. I fought past “oh my G-d,” and “I’m so sorry,” and immediately arrived at a question.
“What can I do?” I asked.
What can I do? My inner voice cried.
“We don’t know yet,” My brother responded. “We’ll let you know.”
Nothing. My inner voice translated. You can do nothing.
I entered the weekend feeling entirely helpless.
Or rather – entirely useless. Because I know.
I know I can’t cure cancer.
I can’t excise my niece’s tumor by roaring at it.
I just wanted to fix this.
I want to step in and shield her and her parents from any and all pain. Any and all suffering.
And I couldn’t.
As soon as the news spread, people started messaging me the same question:
“What can we do?”
“I don’t know yet,” I responded. “I’ll let you know.”
Nothing. My inner voice cried. Nothing you can offer will make this go away.
Because some of us have a hero-complex. Our first instinct when we hear about a problem is to try to figure out a way solve the entire thing.
And when we fail at this (because there are so many things in life that cannot be completely fixed by virtue of sweat and WD-40 alone) we move in the direction of despondency and inertia.
Often, we hear about a tragedy. A diagnosis. A divorce. And we don’t call or message the person suffering because we’re scared that what we can give just won’t be enough.
Because we’re fully aware of our limitations.
We just aren’t capable of bringing that person back to life. Of curing that disease. Of mending her broken spirit.
In this situation, we can’t swoop in and save the day.
Because perfection is the enemy of progress, we frequently determine that because we can’t do Everything, we’re better off doing Nothing.
Nothing is safer.
But over the past two weeks, the world has proven this idea wrong.
Because family, friends, and strangers have all found ways to do Somethings.
So many incredible Somethings.
They haven’t eradicated cancer. Sophie is still in the hospital.
But these Somethings are real.
Those in close proximity have been entirely creative in searching for ways to contribute: home cooked meals, offers of “Hey, I’m just running to Wal Mart, did you need anything?’, bedside guitar playing, custom made cookies to encourage eating…
A photographer who has never met my niece took photos right before this fight. A web designer who has never met my niece designed a beautiful website to keep the world updated of her conquests.
A few of my brother’s coworkers joined forces and donated their extra vacation days to my brother to use as necessary…
Those who are physically distant are storming the heavens with prayers. They open their books of psalms, the place where our hands and G-d’s hands meet. They are rocking the foundations of the earth with their good deeds.
And then there are those messages of, “I’m here if you ever need to talk.” Because we can never underestimate the value of emotional support.
People use these phrases like, ‘we’re fighting cancer together’.
On the one hand, we’re not fighting cancer together. Not really.
I would if I could. I would force my way onto the magic school bus, armed to the teeth with swords, grenades, and rifles, and be a screaming figure in the frontline of the battle against proliferating cells.
On the other hand, we are fighting cancer together.
Because there is no way that Sophie or her parents could do this without help.
Beyond the doctors and nurses, there are so many aspects of this war that happen outside of a patient’s body. So many different ways that support can be given. That must be given.
After all, every soldier in need needs comrades.
So what can you do when you can’t do anything about the problem at hand?
You strengthen the muscles around it. In any way possible.