goodbye dear friend
A week ago…
A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer at the start of 2015. Since then, she’s been in and out of hospitals, undergoing all sorts of treatments, fighting the long battle to a hopeful recovery, a recovery that became less hopeful as the months went by. She’s now been in hospital for the better part of the year. She has bed sores and blisters on her feet from rubbing against hospital sheets for the past six months. Cancer is winning. She is dying. She is only 41 years old.
Last time I saw her, back in July, she was in excruciating pain and she felt nauseous and I don’t think she was really up for visitors but still, still, she welcomed us in and made jokes. She was as graceful as she’d been her entire life, before she was ever bound to that hospital bed. And I sit here with my own 41 years and I fret and I fret. I fret that I’m not good enough. I fret about what people think of me. I fret about the white hair patch growing at my temples (probably due to all the fretting) and I fret that there isn’t enough time but time doesn’t give a shit. Time keeps going and catches up with everyone in the end, no matter how we try to outrun it or how much we waste it.
If she could, she would ask for more time. If she were given one more week, one pain-free week, she would make every single second of that week count. In true Jackie fashion, she’d be up for it. She’d gather all of her favourite people around her and she’d dance the night away with them. She wouldn’t get caught up in all the noise.
The things we take for granted. That they will be there forever, the ones we love. The crook between my husband’s arm and his chest, right above the arm pit, the place where I rest my head at night, from where he can just reach to kiss my temple, before I go to sleep, after he’s brushed my hair aside. His heart beating in his chest. My daughter’s piglet snore. Warm breath, like a greenhouse. She’s alive and she’s healthy and tomorrow morning she’ll lie between us like she always does in those 15 minutes before one of us stretches and takes the morning shift after she’s either waved her hands to tell us that she’s thirsty or clapped them, demanding food. People everywhere lose children everyday. To illness, to accident, to unfair fate. People every day lose mothers and fathers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, friends.
I’m trying to stay focused on the here and the now, on wiping small hands and noses clean of orange spaghetti sauce. On doing the same fake sneeze that I’ve done a hundred times before, because it makes her laugh and her laughter is a sunrise that keeps on rising. My world right now seems small: a bag clip, a jam jar lid, a red block, a toothbrush, a yellow highlighter, a finger puppet, a mitten. An apron with deep pockets and her filling it, and emptying it, and filling it back up again. My world seems small but it is so full. Meanwhile, my friend is lying in a hospital bed tonight with a tumour the size of a grapefruit and her husband is holding her hand while she dies. There are a million ways in which this is unfair.
My dad cried when they removed his intubation tube. I was not there to hold his hand while he slowly slipped away, each breath slower than the last, but I imagine that it was a single tear, like the kind you see in the movies. They, the nurses, said that it’s because it hurts the patient’s throat when they remove the tube. I think it’s the dying’s way of saying farewell to this life, to everyone they ever loved. Or maybe they are seeing something of such exquisite beauty, something we’ll only see when we go, maybe it’s the big secret finally revealed, the sweet release from everything that ever bound us to our fears, to our insecurities, to our mistakes, to our regrets… to the things that prevented us from living fully.
She died several hours after I wrote that post. Yesterday was her funeral and it was both the most heartbreaking and beautiful, befitting service that I’ve ever been to. A gospel choir, Amazing Grace, hundreds of people mourning the woman who touched so many lives. I kept thinking about how strong she had been over the past two years. How strong her husband was. How they kept each other going. How their love for each other kept them going. How he slept in a hospital bed, beside her, most nights. How frightening it must have been for both of them when they finally realised that there was nothing else they could do, but wait, for time to take her away. The courage of people in their darkest hours is astonishing.
There are very few people in this world who carry a light within them. An inner light that shines like a beacon and shows the way. A light that keeps shining bright long after they’ve gone. People who inspire you to be a better person. I don’t think I ever saw Jackie in a bad mood. She was unflappable, joyful, hilarious, ever lovely. She was the first person I ever talked to back when I was still living in Montreal. It was Nuit Blanche, I was up late, walking down St-Laurent. Joe was partying with his mates somewhere in west London. He called. It was complete chaos in the background, I couldn’t hear a thing and before I knew it this girl grabbed his phone and started to chat with me, telling me she couldn’t wait to meet me, how happy I made Joe and that I had to move to London NOW. I couldn’t tell from her accent whether or not she was British and she said “Girrrrrrrl, I’m from Chicago.” I liked her instantly. She made me feel welcome before I’d even arrived. That was Jackie. Open arms. Always up for it. Completely alive. On a friend’s shoulders at Hyde Park, rocking out to the Rolling Stones. And I was one of the lucky ones to have met her.
I don’t know what happens or where we go, if anywhere, when we die. But I do know that Jackie knew how to live fully. And I feel like the only way that I can honour her life is to live my own life to its fullest, to not take those little moments for granted — the everyday, the minutes and hours between the big things, those minutes and hours that make a life — to be brave, to let my own light shine. In her honour, in her husband’s honour, in my father’s honour, in life’s honour.
I hope that this Thanksgiving weekend you give thanks for those people who shine a light in your life. They are the ones who make this world a better place, long after they’ve gone. And aren’t we the lucky ones to have known them.
“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” ~Marianne Williamson