Before the internet, tracking down Deborah would have been a challenge, since Tahoma lives on rustic Edisto Island, where many residents willingly forgo cable TV, dry cleaners, Starbucks, and a sewer system. But Tahoma had a modem, and Deborah—an author of three books, eloquent speaker, and member of the clinical faculty of the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine—was easily Googled.
Tahoma asked Deborah for help in understanding her own situation; they agreed to a onetime telephone consultation so that Tahoma could close her own book, the one with Ronnie as its main character. On the appointed day, they spoke frankly but also laughed at the funny bits that inevitably hover on the edge of heartbreak, and at the end of their hour Tahoma felt the clarity and closure she'd sought.
In September 2002, two months later, Tahoma felt woozy. Maybe it was the flu, she thought, or maybe this dull-mindedness was what it was like to get old—she was 48. Then she started having fleeting blackouts. She tried to count the episodes but kept losing track. One morning she woke up on the floor beside her bed with extreme head pain. By the time the ambulance came, she was losing her vision.
Tahoma had suffered a grand mal seizure, and she spent the next two weeks in and out of hospitals in Charleston. Biopsy results indicated a rare, malignant brain tumor that had progressed to stage 3 (out of 4). Tahoma's prognosis was, simply put, crappy: The tumor was inoperable—too embedded in the brain tissue that controls speech, sight, hearing—and she would most likely die in as little as two months.
Two weeks after the biopsy, Tahoma sent Deborah an e-mail titled "Tahoma Update." She told Deborah of the tumor and the prognosis. Deborah wrote back asking if there was something she could do.
Tahoma recognized Deborah as both a talented counselor and an abundantly gracious person. Tahoma figured most people would have met that initial voice message with more of a "Screw you—get out of here!" than a return call. "Look," Tahoma responded, "I'm really sick. It seems like I'm going to die, and I want your support."
Deborah knew saying yes would eventually lead to great sadness and pain, but she also felt honored to share in such a momentous part of another person's life. She took a deep breath and said she'd be there for Tahoma. Deborah's commitment stemmed from a mix of generosity and curiosity: She was struck that Tahoma seemed to have no bitterness about her plight. "I would have been very mad at God," Deborah says, "but Tahoma never veered from her position that the illness was a gift. I just fell for her. I melted, and I felt I was to learn something, too, about the hard edges of my psyche."
For the next few months, Deborah sent an e-mail or a card or left a phone message every day. Tahoma couldn't always respond. Six weeks of radiation had knocked her on her butt, and she grew weaker and more nauseated with each treatment. She stopped working and lay on her couch contemplating life and death.
As a spiritual companion, Deborah proved to be an excellent choice. She offered insight, compassion, and humor, and most important, she did not avoid talking about Tahoma's impending death.
"What's it like to have so little time?" Deborah asked at one point.
"Actually," Tahoma answered, "all I have now is time." Tahoma's life before the tumor was nonstop and jam-packed, like a Chinese acrobat spinning countless plates in the air. Now she relished the chasms of time and space each day brought. Tahoma's perspective reminded Deborah of a Roman philosopher. "Seneca said there are two choices in life," Deborah explains. "You can be led by fate, or you can be dragged by it. Tahoma ain't being dragged anywhere."
We Hear You!