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A little over a year ago, I was trying to buy a house. Not just a house, but a really cute house. One with a curved staircase and skylights and a lush yard of green. It was the first house that my husband and I really liked in a market where nice houses were scarce. So we put an offer on it. But someone else had put a better offer on it and suddenly we found ourselves in a bidding war, pitted against an invisible opponent, fighting for the key.

One hour before I expected to hear back from my real estate agent, I was volunteering at my kids’ school library and noticed another parent who was in the room helping her child. “Do you want to become a library volunteer?” I asked her after the class had left.

“Sure,” she said.

“Just fill this out and we’ll train you.” I handed her a form and a pen.

After writing down her name and phone number, she paused. “I don’t know what to put down for my address,” she said. “Right now we’re staying with friends, but we’re trying to buy a house. My mom is sick and we’re looking for a new house so she can live with us. I’m going to find out about the house today.”

“Where is it?” I asked.

She told me the address of the same house I was hoping to buy. “There’s one other bidder left,” she added.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling like a turd. “Me.”

For a few moments the only sound in the library was the computer beeping every time I scanned a book. “Whatever is in God’s plan,” she said, breaking the silence. “I just leave it to him.”

“Yes,” I said, relieved that she was still talking to me. “Whatever happens, we just go with it, right?” I finally looked at her and we smiled at one another, a silent agreement.

On my way home I called my real estate agent and immediately began sobbing into the phone. “I met the other buyer and her mom is sick. I don’t think I want the house anymore… Her sick mom is moving in with her. I think we should withdraw our offer. Should we withdraw our offer?”

My agent knew my history. He knew that my mother had died of cancer ten years before and I still wasn’t “over it.” So he said all the calming things agents must say to their crazy clients who call while sobbing. He said something to the effect of, “Don’t do anything rash; everything will turn out ok.”

A half hour later, my agent called me back.

We didn’t get the house. I was both disappointed and relieved.

After that, I’d sometimes see the other mom at school. I would smile at her, but she rarely made eye contact with me. I wanted to tell her that it was okay and that I didn’t harbor any bad feelings towards her. But we didn’t exactly know each other, so I just kept smiling, and sometimes I would wave at her from across the parking lot, hoping that she would understand.

Several months later, I learned that she had cancer.

But she fought it and later appeared at school again, her hair shorn short, revealing the beauty of her face that I’d never noticed before. And I was all the more glad that she got that house and not me, because at least she had a home where she could recover and heal in peace. Maybe that’s why, I thought, remembering what she had told me in the library about God’s plan.

This should be the end of my story. And I wish it were.

But life is not always fair. Everything doesn’t always turn out okay. And sometimes cancer reminds us of this.

Her cancer returned with its teeth bared. I heard about it through the school grapevine, so I can’t exactly ask her how bad it is, or if I can help.

She doesn’t talk about her cancer with strangers, and that is all I am.
A stranger.
A stranger who once tried to buy the same house she did.
A stranger who lost my mom to cancer and now shares the pain of her struggle from across the parking lot.
A stranger who wants to hug her children when I see them afterschool and tell them that no matter what happens, they will be okay. Eventually.
A stranger who loves, prays, and fears for her, even though I don’t know her, because in a way we are sisters.
Cancer does that. It breaks families. But it also makes them.

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