Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | April 15, 2015

Love in the time of cancer

A re-post in honor of a friend. It’s sad anniversary day: we do keep loving our people, long after they’re gone. Love IS stronger than death. 

Life is eternal; and love is immortal; and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight. – Rossiter W. Raymond. I first found this scrap of poem in a newsletter from our home hospice provider.

Love in the Time of Cancer

Last night I met a lovely woman: a friend of friends. She looked smashing: stylish haircut, adroit makeup, trim leather jacket. Bright eyes, clear skin, fit, standing tall and straight. Witty and personable, beloved by my friends. The first thing I learned about her is that she is going sky diving soon. It’s something she has wanted to do, and now she is making plans to do it. She is clearly an adventuress, who looks life right in the eye and says Yes, please.

As the sunset faded and the sky grew dark the conversation steered toward more serious subjects. Mysticism. Lourdes. The healing waters, miracles, faith, and the lack thereof. Our talk grew ever deeper, seemingly starting to lead down a familiar path.

Then she said it. She looked into my eyes, the eyes of a stranger, and said, “I’ve just been Diagnosed.


The word ‘Diagnosed’, with that special emphasis, is only used for one thing these days. I thought: she looks fantastic, it’s a blip, perhaps a minor, early stage —

She said, “Liver. Lung. Bones.”

My head swam with the enormity of it. No early stage, hopeful spin of possibility here.

She plans to fight it. Of course. People do.

She hasn’t even told all her children yet. She hasn’t even met with the oncologist yet. I remember those days all too well – that horrible, helpless inertia between diagnosis and first oncology appointment.

I remember: Jeff and I in hospital room looking at full color close-up pictures of the gnarly pink malignancy growing inside him. Jeff in hospital gown, drowsy from first exploratory procedure, saying hopefully to the gastroenterologist, “But these days it’s not necessarily a death sentence?”

I remember the doctor’s seconds-too-long pause before his hearty answer.

I remember the oncologist’s chilling words at the initial appointment, “Don’t be under the impression this can cure you.”

“We’ll try to buy you some time.”

Which he did. We got a year. Give or take.

(Statistically right on target. There are tables for this sort of thing. I looked at all of them. Jeff  -previously king of any and all research-  looked at none. The literature of cancer research is riddled with acronyms for the most cold blooded phrases imaginable: Life expectancy after presenting with metastases at diagnosis. Time measured in weeks or months before disease progression, with this or that less or more toxic, barbaric treatment – poison, burning, freezing, scheming to outwit and starve the growing thing. Presenting with no evidence of disease after five years = may or may not mean cured. That figure is a single digit. So it goes.)

We got fourteen statistically correct months. Months that were often filled with the most disgusting, demeaning, harrowing, base reminders of mortality – that we are weak, fragile, made of blood, bone, and meat that all breaks down. Systems fail. We all die, and so often it is not pretty.

But that year  -give or take-  was also filled with the purest expressions of love and life that I could ever hope to know. You wouldn’t think that dealing with bodily effluents and constant reminders of a finite existence would fill one with grace, and many days it surely did not. But some days it did, and I am ever grateful.

Everyone I know who has been through this kind of trial by fire comes out the other side tempered. Mortality is so much easier to accept in the abstract than when it is manifesting before your very eyes. Once you’ve seen death and dying close up, you’re a different person and there’s no going back. If one is shown that lesson and yet given more time, one must try to make the most of that time allowed, when- and however we are able.

None of us know how much time we can expect on this planet. I have wasted huge swaths and reams of time since Jeff died, all the while knowing how finite the time really is. I’ve spent entire days staring into space or distracting myself from emotions too fierce to face directly. Many more days were lost in recovery after wrestling with those murderous demons alone in the middle of a black night. I know it’s time I’ll never get back, and perhaps I’ll wish for it in vain later on. Since I can’t change that now, I try to be gentle and forgiving with myself for these, and myriad other faults.

I am trying to learn to be as kind to myself as I now aim to be toward other people. Or first, do no harm, anyway. It’s taken me a long time to learn: We’re all doing the best we can at any given moment, presumably. I guess all we can do, in the tragedy of these finite lives we have, is surround ourselves with the things and people and experiences we know to be most important to us. Go skydiving? Maybe.

Walk in peace alone and alongside each other, surely. Abide and bear witness. Learn the hardest thing: how to be happy in spite of grief. Learn how to regret nothing. Learn how to gracefully say goodbye when it is time. Love one another.

Love one another.


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