I wore the coat to the group the next time and introduced it to the class. Susan and I explained how the coat had come to be and that it had prompted me to write a thank you letter that I normally wouldn’t have written. It was hard to tell what the group was thinking.
(If this were a screenplay, I decided, it would star me as Diane Keaton, along with Susan Sarandon, Alicia Keys, Halle Berry, Isabella Rossellini, Melissa McCarthy, and a Teutonic Judi Dench.)
No one had any procedures that week, so Alicia Keys took the coat. When I handed it over, I asked her to think about things she could do with the coat that she wouldn’t have done otherwise. That day in class, we’d written goals designed to help us reevaluate our priorities. Alicia wanted to play more with her kids, like she used to before she got cancer. She also wanted to strengthen her relationships. Armed with the coat, instead of staying home as she’d planned, she had a blast at a party her kids were attending, and she caught up with old friends. She was convinced it was the coat’s doing!
After our hockey-bar night, Susan started asking the rest of the group if they wanted to go out for beers after class. At first not many people could make it, but by the end of the 10-week class, just about the whole group was meeting for what I was calling the “after-party.” Isabella Rossellini dubbed us the Benson Babes; our go-to place was The Harp on Causeway Street.
The course at Benson was being led by staff psychologist Ann Webster, who also teaches at Harvard Medical School. She’s been working on a documentary about people in her Benson class who had been given death sentences and are still around today. During our final class, Ann’s videographer came to film the story of the coat. So we each stood up, wearing the coat, and described our history with it.
The coat had changed Alicia Keys’s life. Isabella Rossellini wore the coat and got the news that her tumors were shrinking. I wore it again and found out I didn’t have to have radiation yet. Susan said she felt the love of the group every time she put it on. I just needed the coat, said Halle Berry. Judi Dench hadn’t taken the coat yet but was leaving with it, and ended up getting good news on her scan. That left just one class regular who’d never worn the coat: Melissa McCarthy.
She’d come to our final class carrying a big cake, telling us not to look at it. Once we’d gone around the circle telling our coat stories, Melissa stood up and said to the videographer, “Follow me.” Then she unveiled the cake. It was a replica of the coat. We were stunned. We erupted with joy. We cried. All at the same time.
Several people mentioned to me that it was like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a novel about four teenagers who share a pair of jeans. I would roll my eyes and say: “Yes, but that was fiction. This is fact.”
Though the class ended in April, we haven’t stopped meeting. Every week it’s at another person’s house. We meditate, talk about issues we’re having with cancer, and otherwise try to incorporate something we learned in the class.
On the hottest day in June, Melissa McCarthy wore the coat, and she wore it into the MRI machine. She said the energy from the Benson Babes made her feel like she was not alone, like we were all there with her.
At some point the coat will stop working for everyone every time. In fact, it already has. Melissa’s scan results were not good, but that hasn’t changed the comfort she gets from wearing it. There’s something about that coat that stands for everything we learned in class: to be kind to people, because judging them “hardens our heart,” to live every moment of life to its fullest, and to keep a gratitude diary to remind us of how good our life is now.
As a handout in our class booklet says: Who says how long your life should last? The real question is, how will you live it?
When I told them about the Globe Magazine accepting my story about the coat, the response from my fellow Benson Babes was overwhelming. Halle Berry got the news in the waiting room at MGH. She e-mailed me: “I am smiling on the inside and on the outside. I don’t have the coat with me . . . or do I. . . . But I have this story. It gives me strength, it reminds me to be positive. It reminds me that I am not alone. Loving life right now!!”
When she got her results, she was cancer free.
Cynthia Thomas is a writer and dancer in Boston. Send comments to email@example.com.