A friend of mine died yesterday, Valentines Day morning. She was at home surrounded by her sisters and held by her husband at the moment her body failed, as they sang to her and prayed. I sat in the hallway a few feet away and listened but did not impose myself to take up precious space at her bedside. She had pancreatic cancer that had remitted and recurred. Pain medication partially worked in the last few days, providing her hours or minutes of unconsciousness at a time but not in the final hour and a half of her life. Although unresponsive, she cried out strongly and often. Drowning finally ended her pain.
A couple of years ago she was diagnosed cancer and her prognosis was less than 5% chance of living beyond 6 months. Her treatment was first rate and with chemotherapy and surgery she went into complete remission. There wasn’t a trace of cancerous tissue in the organs that were removed, the therapy had been so successful, which is rare. However the treatment was so hard on her that she was left a shell of herself. We nearly lost her then and she almost succumbed to the trauma of the treatment. She had intense pride and it was clear she suffered greatly from seeing herself so feeble so she strictly limited her contact with anyone including old friends. Slowly she regained her health with many bumps along the way and only recently did we start seeing her back in her familiar settings. I saw her just before Thanksgiving as she made a point of coming to see me. She looked strong and had the old powerful and happy glint in her eye. She had always been a force to behold and she was back. I hugged her and told her how good she looked. I was happy to finally have her fully here among us again. Not more than a month later her diagnosis was changed again with no hope this time of survival. She went into bottomless depression and refused contact with anyone but her immediate family. Being a nurse, she even attempted push her family away and to find a facility to commit herself to that would oversee her care and allow her to deny her family the witness of the wrenching end she knew was coming. Of course that was far too much to demand of anyone and she was lovingly cared for at home by her family and hospice, but her passing has left wounds on those that were there. Hospice is a blessing, believe me.
Her name was Valencia. The influence of her life has been felt intensely by people around this earth. Right now funeral and memorial preparations are commencing with multiple services planned locally but also in a native American community, the Himalayas and a large monastery in southern India. Memorial funds are being forwarded to an orphanage in Haiti. She was christian and very set in her beliefs but welcomed them all into her life with a smiling open gaze, without bias or question.
She had a husband and two children, one of which she lost into the justice system because of mental illness – she and her husband had decided to adopt and raise a crack baby, an infant boy as their own since they viewed themselves as a uniquely qualified counsellor and RN team. However he was saddled with unfair and unresponsive disabilities and behaviors from the start that has bankrupted the family emotionally and financially. Even so, she always called him, “the joy of my life.” Many note aloud the coincidence of cancer with losing her boy. Now he is a ward of the state even though still under age, so that he can continue to get good care and treatment that the family can no longer afford. Lately that has included being imprisoned.
Many times I have had conversations with people in this very religious and conservative community about the fairness of “god” and the involuntary suffering by people such as Valencia’s son, who everyone knows and who had every advantage yet in retrospect, never any chance. This boy was damned before he took his first breath. I don’t think I will bring up Valencia’s death should the conversation recur – it is too much – too sensitive for anyone that knew her.
This is not meant as a memorial but my memories are vivid and fond and I hope I have conveyed a sense of her to you.
This we all have in common. We all suffer and we all die and I do not pretend to know what happens after. Regardless, it ends badly here for all of us. See that clearly and do not presume to know what you do not. As bad as that is…no because of it…we have a shared basis for truly looking at each other with understanding and care. Nothing is as inescapable and bad as this shared experience, and nothing is as deep as our shared connection because of it. I think we call it empathy and compassion. There is no room for pity in this unless you are in denial of your own fragility and mortality.
I had not seen this before – out of the muck of the brutality of life itself grows the possibility of, the need for and the flower of compassion. There is no place for it otherwise. Take a close look at it. As delicate as it seems, nothing is as potent. There is nothing else to hold on to either. I have looked – tell me what you find. But I can see that it is possible the view may buckle the mind and an insane haunted hellish and energetic denial take over. But with a little strength I think it is possible look closely, so that the bones of reality show and that there is truth there of some use. It is a terrible place to be with forces threatening to and actually tearing us apart, but it is life and is where we all are, just some less oblivious than others. For some reason it seems important to me to look honestly as I can while my body is still calm and my mind still works with any clarity.
All we have that makes it tolerable is each other. All else is insanity and denial and yet there are a lot of people in the grip of these two wreaking havoc in the fragile lives of others, causing huge amounts of needless suffering and death. Our shared experience cries out to us. Our shared connection demands that it stop. Life is more than enough on its own.