Someone was already at the table, but she looked nice. We didn't need an entire dining set to ourselves, just two chairs. Besides, milling around looking for an open table to eat at during a conference where two thousand other people are doing exactly the same thing gets boring incredibly quickly.
"Is there someone sitting in either of these two seats?"
Her answer was confusing at best. I gathered from inductive reasoning that at least one person was sitting in one of the other available spots. Thirty seconds in, she cleared up the murky waters of her surprisingly complex response by saying "why don't I move this and then you and your Grandpa can sit here with us. We'd love to have you."
Why thank you, we'd love to eat with you too.
Her husband appeared moments later carrying two iced teas with the liquid dancing in response to his shaking hands.
"I'm Lorraine, this is Pete."
I'm James, this my friend Harold.
"Where are you visiting from?"
Harold was excited to be around peers, and he didn't quite know how to contain himself as he launched into introductions for us both. At 75, being excited about something is an amazing idea, and I loved watching him expound on the most unnecessary and inconsequential facts about where he was from. Effortlessly he threw down all the details of exactly what disease it was he'd conquered, why he was attending the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society conference, and how he'd come to learn about what was next for him.
He'd successfully fought off a particularly vicious blood cancer "CLL" he'd say gruffly, "stage 4. But then one day my white blood cell count started to drop for no apparent reason."
Pete and Lorraine were captivated by his story.
"Well, we're in the middle of this thing" Lorraine said, reaching over to touch her husband's hand. "We've been to all the events they've offered, this is our first conference, and I have to say we're learning a lot. Pete's a strong fellow, we're just wanting to soak up as much as we can."
Everywhere I looked there were people from all walks of life with nothing but hope on their faces. Some had full heads of hair, others wore caps to mask their loss from aggressive therapeutic attempts to eradicate their disease, and the teenagers with a war waging inside their bodies against themselves most often chose beanies.
Lunch was a dry sandwich -- no condiments. You never think about how much they matter until you have a dry club sandwich without any of them. Then you realize how important they are to complete your sandwich.
The gentleman who spoke last just before break had lived through a particularly aggressive breed of lymphatic cancer, "macroglobulinemia" and had been on over a thousand different kinds of medication over the course of his disease.
I sat and listened as Harold, Pete and Lorraine exchanged their stories, compared experiences, and spoke medical dialogue so quickly and efficiently it was hard to believe none of them had darkened the door of a medical class. But they hadn't -- they were living, breathing classrooms themselves.
They were a case study, a statistic, and most avidly against the odds.
"Pete and I visited Hawaii for our 25th wedding anniversary. We loved it so much! It was the most special present I think he's ever given me." Pete smiled and his eyes watched his wife as she dove into the deep blue sea of memories to pick out the best ones and show me.
"We went to all four major islands together, but Kauai was our favorite. I wanted to sleep in -- all I wanted to do was sleep -- but Pete got me up dark and early one morning to watch the sunrise on top of that mountain, Haleakala, while we were in Maui."
He was from Boston, they'd been married for 55 years and "plan on making it another 55 together!"
Pete had "acute myeloid leukemia" but refused to say the words. "AML" he interrupted as his wife attempted say the full name for us. "They know what that is." Lorraine smiled and nodded, "well, Harold had CLL and it's in remission, and James is a nursing student. I'm sure he knows more about it than we do!"
I don't Lorraine. I know almost nothing. But after my light lunch of a sandwich with chips and a side of cold pasta salad, I know more about it than the any of my classes could ever teach me.