Among the many gifts Greg Grappone left behind was a poem he wrote for his wife Amy. She read it at his funeral service last May while holding their squirming daughter Briar, who was not yet 3. Its concluding lines inspired this blog.
“Let us meet again in a place not of our choosing,” Greg wrote.
“Let us meet again.”
Greg and I had come to know each other in just such a place. In April of 2010, I was diagnosed with pre-B cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, known in the trade as ALL. After several months of chemotherapy and radiation, I received a stem cell transplant under the care of doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
And I was lucky. I did well.
Like me, Amy was a journalist who had worked at the Concord Monitor, and two years later, a mutual friend connected us. Only 32, Greg was facing cancer for the third time -- a blood cancer similar to mine -- and, as with me, his best path forward was a stem cell transplant.vI emailed him on November 19, 2012, with the subject line “hello from a fellow traveler.” The next day he wrote back, and thus was born an unusual friendship.
Unusual not just because of its origins. Over the years that followed I spent as little as a dozen hours in Greg’s company. Twice we met in his hospital room; otherwise, we took walks in his neighborhood in Concord and ate lunch with Amy afterward in their kitchen.
Following his transplant, with things going reasonably well, Greg, Amy and Briar moved to Seattle -- like Boston, home to one of the leading cancer centers in the country. But there was nothing any doctor could do to overcome what happened next: Greg’s transplanted immune system, confused by its new surroundings, turned against him.
It’s called Graft vs. Host Disease, or GVHD. I had it too, in mild form, causing stiffness in my arms and elbows. Trivial. For Greg, GVHD meant a year-long descent into misery, rendering him unable to move without pain, trapped in his own body.
Every Saturday morning, Greg and I would exchange emails; living on East Coast time, I’d go first. Because we were fellow travelers, there was much we didn’t need to say to each other -- and much more we could. He drew hope from me, and I drew inspiration from him. We were members, we joked, of a shitty little club. But it was a club.
I didn’t realize how much those exchanges meant to me -- or to him -- until one busy Saturday when I forgot to write. His note began with an accusation: “Shirking Your Duties!”
As limited as he was physically in his final months, Greg remained ever active. In our last emails, he wrote about researching his family’s history online, about programming a game for his nieces and nephew, about falling behind on his book-a-week challenge. When I told him my head was too narrow to appreciate poetry, he teased that my phrasing was rather poetic.
Greg died of pneumonia last May 1. The whole purpose of our shitty little club was helping each other overcome cancer, which is one of the reasons I can’t think about Greg without feeling a great sadness.
But of course, our club has many other members. And I suspect if Greg were alive and healing, he’d be thinking of them too.
Hence this blog. Five years after my transplant, I feel ready to share my experiences, before they blur in memory to the point that I can no longer describe them. My hope in recounting these stories is that they’ll be of help to others in the club: patients, caregivers, loved ones and practitioners.
I’ll aim to post on Saturday mornings, as Greg and I did. You’re welcome to respond by commenting below or by emailing me at email@example.com. There is much to be said about this place not of our choosing, and from many perspectives; perhaps in time others will join the conversation. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
Let us meet again.