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Friday, February 25, 2011

Does how you live influence how you die?

My "Crazy Cancer Club" is getting smaller.  It was a small club to start with, really just four of us.  Amy died in December after a 14 or so month fight with a relatively rare, very aggressive form of cancer.  Now, another member is making the transition, after a three year battle with ovarian cancer.  If I were to vocalize my gratitude for today, it would probably be "I'm grateful that I had breast cancer, given the other options out there."  Yep, that would be it, I think.  Breast cancer is not a walk in the park; it frequently causes death; it's also not as bad as many other forms of cancer.

Yet, the times I've visited this particular friend as she's been in hospice the last few weeks, over in the 18 months I've known her, I've learned a lot from S.  While the vast majority of us don't get to choose how we die, we do have the opportunity to lay the groundwork way before the inevitable event.  This is probably the biggest lesson I've learned from S. 

No matter what we've talked about, even with the inevitable conversations centered on the side effects of the drugs that we take to combat side effects (OK, I'll just be blunt here: when cancer endurers get together, we frequently talk about poop, too much, too little, too soft, too hard; it's a never ending battle) or if we talked about other indignities, S always, always, always remained upbeat.  Even when I visited her in the ER one night when her port was infected, before I could ask her how she was doing or what the medical plan was, she was asking me about me.  Did I manage to get my kid started on his homework?  Yes, two hours earlier I'd mentioned that one of my kids had procrastinated on his weekend homework and I'd have to be getting home to monitor that.  S had bacteria in her port, spreading through her body, making her ill, and she wondered if my son had started his study guide!  I don't think S had even met this particular child.  She doesn't have children of her own, yet her first thought was of my child. 

Today, I found out that S had 47 visitors yesterday!  I'm not sure I can remember the names of 47 people, let alone get 47 people to leave their warm homes on a gray day in late February when a winter storm is being expected.  Forty-seven friends and family members, though, trooped out, in dribs and drabs, to show their love for S.  They had no way of knowing if she was having a good enough day to even see them, yet they went.

I've now met two of S's siblings, sisters, and a high school age niece.  Even in these trying times, they are able to smile, laugh, and be supportive, not just of each other and S, but of others as well.

Many of us fear dying.  And why wouldn't we.  It's something we haven't done before, and unknown experiences are frightening.  Many of us claim to know what happens after death, but I don't think any single one of us can say for sure what the mechanism of "after death" actually entails.  Rightly so, then, dying is something we can justifiably look at with less than enthusiasm.  Even more than dying, though, I think many of us fear dying alone.  Hospitals and nursing homes are full of people who are in the process of doing just that.  Many times, we say things to the effect of, "It's sad he/she is alone, but he/she made that bed and now has to lie in it, sad as that might be."

In essence, we all do die alone.  It's a solitary endeavor.  No one can experience it for us.  The most that can be done is to help us alleviate discomfort and show us love.  The transitioning can be assisted, but ultimately, we transition by ourselves.  Yet, I can't imagine that no matter how we approach this transition it can't be made better by having others involved for support.

Throughout her life, S has made great connections to her family and community.  She's kind, caring, generous, and supportive of others.  My guess is that they way she has lived her life, for how many years she's been living it, she's been a good person. Oh, I'm sure she hasn't been perfect.  In fact, I've heard her say a few snarky things.  I'm sure that she and her siblings fought as children.  She's probably done some not nice things.  Every one has and does.  Yet, I'm also sure that S is leaving the world having made it a better place than how she found it.

There's no denying that personality and lots of other variables play a huge role in all of this conjecture.  I'd by no means want to be misunderstood:  we shouldn't be nice or good for selfish reasons.  However, I really do think that we can learn a lot by knowing people at the end of their lives.  Good begets good, some times.  Luck and circumstance certainly play a role, but S is not dying alone in large part because she's lived a good life.  We all are better off for having known her.  People who haven't had the opportunity to know her are better off for her having spent time on earth simply because others are better people.  Her nieces and nephews have that much more goodness within them because of the love she's showed them.  Her siblings now have the opportunity to share some of her goodness to others, whether they know it or not.

As humans, unless we are true hermits, we influence those around us.  The world is either a better or worse place because of our actions and inactions, whether large or small.  We all do make a difference.

In the case of S and her current transition, what goes around comes around.

And that's what I've learned from S.

Go in light.  Your light shall perpetually shine here.

1 comment:

lizo said...

This has been a very hard lesson for me to learn, that the path to the end that my father-in-law has taken. I have wanted him to make so many other choices, talk to his kids about history, talk to his kids about how he feels about them, fight harder, fight longer, even his blog has left me in wonderment. It took a long time and a lot of thought, that it is his path, not mine, not David's, not his daughter's, but his.
He has a certain sense of what time is left, and is making choices on how to spend that time.

My time could certainly be shorter, depending on whether or not the lady next to me is capable of talking on her cell phone while driving 65 miles an hour down the freeway, so I have to make choices in how I live my life, too.

I am thankful that you shared your thoughts on your friend, for it has helped me in this moment make a shift in being more at peace with what choices my father-in-law has made.

Dawn, you are a gift, and I love you for being.