Chapter 34: Facing the hard stuff

Lucy: Wouldn’t saying goodbye to your child make death more painful?
Paul: Wouldn’t it be great if it did?

Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering. Years ago it occurred to me that Darwin and Neitche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best. …. We decided to have a child. We would carry on living, instead of dying.

After 13 grueling months of pain, treatment, and lots of love from her family and friends my friend Elizabeth in Florida took rest from her bile duct cancer journey on March 11, 2018. We were high school friends and had reconnected on facebook in 2010. Yes, you are right, no one should die at 48 years of age. Her amazing husband and two beautiful daughters are somehow learning to survive without their beloved wife/mom.

My friend Liz, here in NC, passed away on April 11, 2018 after a 6-year journey with metastatic breast cancer. One of my favorite memories with Liz was when the two of us went to the Lilith Fair in Raleigh. Sadly, those were the days before smart phones, so I have no pictures to capture the memory. She was funny, clever, brilliant – a neuroscientist and pharmacist – and also an amazing patient and advocate for those living with cancer. Among many beautiful things said about my extraordinary friend as we gathered to celebrate her, this comment from her Dad has stuck with me, “Liz had dignity. Dignity even through the end.” (paraphrase).

Don’s HS classmate, Jennifer, passed away this week from Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Don and Jennifer together survived a dangerous car accident 30 years ago; they were all lucky to walk away with minor injuries. Only thirty more years is not enough – 46 is too young to go. Jennifer left behind a loving husband and two sons.

And then to top it all off, our sweet 10-year old lab, Bridford, has a cancer diagnosis and is not feeling well this week. He had a life-saving surgery about a month ago to remove a bleeding tumor and  his spleen, and lab work afterwords confirmed the cancer has spread to his liver. We knew it could be weeks or months …. but we thought it would be longer than this. We have shed tears tonight over the confirmation that Bridford’s time might be coming sooner than later. As we talked with the boys we explained that it’s tempting to search for ways to avoid it, but ultimately we need to learn how to face it and learn from it, because death cannot be avoided. Hard decisions cannot be avoided. I think this is what Paul and Lucy are doing in the intro paragraph above. The excerpt is from Paul’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air (P. Kalanithi), when he and his wife are considering the idea of having their first child, even as Paul faces a terminal cancer diagnosis at 36 years old.

I won’t ask you to raise your hand if your life has been touched by cancer. Maybe I should ask you to raise your hand if cancer HAS NOT touched your life. If your hand is raised after that question, I highly recommend you prepare for the inevitable. Two years ago I was worried about my kid heading to high school. One year ago I was worried about Don’s diagnosis and what this meant for our life. One month ago I was grieving the loss of one friend, on high alert for the pending passing of another. And less than a week ago faced with two more unexpected cancer scenarios on our radar screen. I don’t say this to whine or complain. It stinks, for sure. But I say this as matter-of-fact. Life is bumpy. Things happen. Disease strikes. It’s part of being human. Tonight as I hug my son who cannot bear the idea of living without his dog, I will remind myself that it’s such a beautiful gift to face the hard stuff and feel the feelings. To know that as we work through each step of these hard moments, we become a bit wiser and a bit more tender, which makes us better humans. Through my pain I can better relate to yours.  At least I think that’s how it’s supposed to work.

UPDATE: Our sweet Bridford crossed the Rainbow Bridge on May 12. We miss him, but he knows we loved  him, and he sure loved us!