When Life Becomes Death
When will my time come and how will it hit me?
My neighbor and friend is dying of cancer. She, like myself, has always been a vivacious, free spirited, vocal woman who taught special needs adolescents for most of her life. She is happily married to her best friend. She and he travel to Florida in the winter to enjoy the sunshine and the warm weather while the rest of us shiver and curse the snow. She has also smoked her entire life.
When I moved into my current home; a new divorcee with my two children, the first sound I heard was Sue next door, loudly talking and laughing on her patio with a friend. In her back yard was a beautiful pool which I never saw anyone use and surrounding her yard were many flowering bushes and plants; all of which she would spend hours per week cultivating and watering. That is how we became friendly neighbors. Through our love of plants.
I never swam in that pool and neither did they. Their children used it when they were young and their grandchildren use it when they sporadically visit but Sue and her husband chose to just admire its beauty which always puzzled me. Her husband Dick was as friendly as she was and whenever I baked cookies or needed to borrow an ingredient, I could go next door and be invited in as if an old friend.
I loved hearing that laugh of Sue's; boisterous and deep. I am sure her smoking caused it to be rough sounding but there was something comforting about Sue's voice and her demeanor. I liked her from the start. Each winter my children and I kept her sidewalks shoveled and kept an eye on her house. I always knew when Sue and Dick returned in the spring because she was a constant presence outdoors; watering her plants and flowers. I always looked forward to hearing that throaty, deep laugh of hers as well.
This year, the spring came but I didn't see or hear Sue. I saw vehicles coming and going from the house but knew people came to water the plants inside and out when they were gone. A couple weeks ago, I was neighboring with Pam from across the street and asked if my neighbors had returned.
That's when I found out.
Sue had felt a lump when they first got to Florida in November. She went and had it biopsied and discovered she was in stage 4 breast cancer. She immediately began chemotherapy and it seemed to be working until one day in February, she commented to her doctor that she felt like she had knocked down a few martinis without the pleasure of drinking them (I always loved her humor)! They did an MRI and found the cancer, even with the chemotherapy, had spread to her bones and to her brain. She had nine areas in her brain that were affected and was told nothing could be done.
Sue is only 65. That may seem old to younger people but to me, at 50, it is the age of my older sister and not that far from where I am standing right now.
It took me a couple days to take in the news. Sue and Dick had been home for months but I didn't know this because Sue had been given a death sentence that should have taken place the beginning of June. She has passed the dreaded day but is quickly diminishing in body and mind. Her soul is still feisty and her humor still there but she is a mere shadow of herself right now.
I was grocery shopping a few days after taking in the information about her situation and I glanced over to the flowers for sale. Huge, beautiful bouquets of flowers were on sale for $8.00 each. I picked two of the hardiest bunches and decided that if Sue couldn't enjoy her flowers outside, then I would bring them to her. I called the house on my way home and wasn't surprised that no one answered the phone. I left a message stating that if I saw a light on then I would stop and drop off something to brighten Sue's night. If there was no light, I would come the next day.
Dick had a light on and was waiting for me. He opened the door and whispered that Sue was asleep. I hadn't seen him since last November and he too looked frail and thin. I wanted to embrace him but felt awkward. I told him that I was worried about his welfare and Sue's and that while Sue was the one fighting the disease that I knew he was fighting it as well in his own way. He shed some tears, thanked me for the flowers and I told him that he could call; day or night if need be.
That night, I couldn't sleep. I could only think that last summer Sue was running around the yard, laughing, joking and entertaining friends. She spoke excitedly about the possibility of selling their home up north and moving down south permanently but her husband didn't want to leave the area just yet on a full time basis. His businesses were here and his friends as well. He wasn't as social as she was and it was harder for him to make new friends. She of course, didn't have that problem.
I kept thinking, what if? What if I found out suddenly that a growth had violated my body. My breast. The part of a woman's body that is supposed to give milk to feed an infant. The part of a woman's body that is highly desired by many men. The part of my body that has given me as much grief as it has joy. The part of my body that made earlier days of running uncomfortable but also was used to arouse my lover and made me feel like a woman. What if one day, that part of my body became my nemesis and turned against me and I was forced to do everything I could to rid it from my body? What would I do?
I would most likely fight. Intensely and without looking back. I would feel sorrow for losing a part of myself but would have greater joy knowing that other opportunities would be around the next bend. Then, what if, while you were fighting this cancerous beast and found out it not only infiltrated a part of your body that made you feel womanly, it was wreaking havoc throughout your entire temple...your entire being and there was absolutely nothing you could do to defeat it?
Would you have a choice? Right now, at least in my state, I would not. My neighbor Sue is wasting away slowly. Right now, eating is becoming more difficult for her. She has where a breast used to be, mound upon mound of what looks like mountains of gargantuan sized cottage cheese curds layering on top of each other. These mounds are lumps of cancer growing on the outside of her body. These mounds ooze and seep blood constantly and bandages do not contain the fluids. I am sorry for being so graphic. I asked to look. I wanted to let Sue know that I cared and was not afraid of the beast that was ravaging her body. I wanted to see what she was dealing with and having to look at daily when she glanced into a mirror. I went a bit weak in the knees but I looked. Then I hugged her and realized that her frustration over being helpless and not in control of her own body was the hardest part of this struggle for her.
Sue then laughed as if to break the tension and said, "You know, I've smoked my entire life and the doctor says that my lungs are clear. Can you beat that?" I wanted to blurt out that perhaps the smoking had something to do with her cancer but all I could say was, "Amazing". Sue is amazing. She is dying before everyone's eyes and she is making jokes. Her children have come around quite a bit lately as have her grandchildren. They are planning a video of her life to be shown at her funeral. They are deciding how they will celebrate her life at the end of it.
What will I do if put in Sue's shoes? I don't know if I could take it with the grace that Sue and Dick are demonstrating. I don't think I would want the last moments with my children and friends to be that of me looking like a shadow of myself and not being able to talk, eat or care for myself. People who love you will always jump in and assist and care for you. I don't know if I personally would have the grace that my dear neighbor has to accept my fate and wait it out.
My friend Mary Ann and I have known each other our entire lives. We have always said as if a mantra, that if either of us gets to that point in our lives, we hope that the other would help us die with dignity and by choice. I realize that politics and religious beliefs play heavily on what people perceive to be an illegal act. Even when I was in high school and Karen Quinlan became a national name because the right to die became a judgment instead of a right; I knew at 15 years old that I didn't want to be kept alive or live with a debilitating disease that had no cure and would rob me of my personal choices. When Dr. Kervorkian hit the news, my mother and I discussed how we wanted Dr. K to assist in our own demise; if necessary. Many may disagree with me but in the following video, Dr. K speaks the words that I still believe in today. That we should have a choice.
I called over to my neighbor's today and asked how they were doing. I had brought them food a couple times but noticed that not much was being eaten. Dick said that Sue was finding it a struggle to eat and swallow. They had a bed delivered today that allowed her to raise and lower it so she could have some assistance in movement. She also had a chair delivered by a friend that lifts her up to the floor as she can no longer stand up on her own. She must weigh between 70-80 pounds right now.
I took over some smoothies and she tried to force down a couple sips to be nice. Her best friend was over, getting ready to bathe her and get her ready for bed. She politely but abruptly forced me out the door because she knew her best friend was very tired and needed to lay down and think about her past, her present and her future. I again stated that I was just next door if they needed me. Everyone politely thanked me and I noted that no one was really keeping any kind of eye contact except for Sue. She looked me right in the eye, smiled and said, "I'll see you soon."
I will lay my head on my pillow tonight praying for a painless passing of Sue's physical being. I have been fighting back tears tonight; many of those tears for her and her husband and some of them for me. I am scared. Scared to lose a friend. A neighbor that epitomized exuberance and life to me. Someone that had a laugh like the melody of birds on a warm, breezy day. I am scared to face the reality that I could be next. I could be walking the dog or watering my flowers and brush my arm against the side of my breast. I could find a lump. Worse yet, I wouldn't feel one until it was too late. I am afraid that I will one day be taken from my children before they are both adults. Seeing a friend die brings out so many emotional terrors in me. I feel helpless. I feel disbelief. I feel angry at myself in thinking that I should have done more. I feel darkness in the waiting. Aside from praying, I don't know what to do.