We should be spending the appointment talking about Joshua’s blood work but instead Josh is telling R, his oncologist, about Comic Con. The gaunt, silent child of six months ago has been replaced by his predecessor. This Josh, who I remember, talks animatedly about the illustrators and artists he met on his trip. He’s just presented R with a “failure is not an option” coaster.

“Subtle.” R says with laughter in her eyes.

I try to steer the conversation back to his eating and energy and blood work but both Josh and the doctor aren’t interested. They are comparing notes on the loudness of New York tour guides. I feel something blossom in my chest – part love, part relief, part gratitude. Together they are a formidable team. I suspect that these interactions are as good for Josh as the medicines R prescribes. My throat gets tight and I have to fight the sentimental tears that threaten to erupt.

“Today was a rough day and then you arrived, Josh, and lifted our spirits.” R looks to A, her nurse, who nods and glances away with shiny eyes.

“I don’t know how you do this work and stay human. I think I’d be in tears all the time.” I say.

“We cry a lot.” A says, “Sometimes it’s the relief of seeing the patients like Josh who set us off crying the most.”

Later on, I’m still smiling and writing updates for all Joshua’s friends when I see a post on FB with the quote, “What would you attempt if you knew you would not fail?” It’s supposed to be inspiring but it gets me thinking about R and A and the tough day they’ve had.

I think a better question must surely be, “What would you attempt if you knew you would fail?”

I wonder what it must take to wake up each day knowing that the odds are against you. That you will fail. And fail in a way where lives will be lost? What must it be like to spend your days with people who are in pain? Who are scared? Who are at their worst? Who are filled with the anguish and anger and blame of facing their mortality? What must it be like to know all this and to do the job anyway?

I don’t know. I know that it takes a person who has more courage, more grit, than I can easily imagine.

“Perhaps they do it because of people like Josh?” Shannon suggests, “People who respond to treatment? Who are cured or get longer because of their efforts?” It seems like scant reward.

I don’t know if their ability to remain open and vulnerable improves Joshua’s prognosis. I do know that his life (the one he is living right now) is better because of these interactions. Despite invasive tests and toxic treatments, Josh is always a little happier on oncology appointment days.

I ask myself (and maybe you too): What would you attempt if you knew you would fail?

Maybe I would be a better person. Maybe I would be a more courageous person. Maybe I could face the hardships of life with, if not ease, then equanimity? Maybe I’d even be a more adventurous person? I’d like that.

I ask again: What would you attempt if you knew you would fail?


What would yo attempt if you knew you would fail? What would you try if you knew you would fail?