‘I can feel it,’ Marlou said to me one day, a winter day, although the season hardly mattered. ‘I can feel it spreading.’
No further details required, cancer filling in not only the bodily cavities but the mind’s fear spaces so readily that the listener automatically completes any descriptive sentence. Feel it. The body expanding. Interior parts never experienced now touching others. Followed by painful invasions. Then dryings and drippings. Followed by those pervasive, wrenching experiences of offness that bear such glib names as nausea. And under all of it fear.
And Marlou standing in the doorway of our apartment kitchen, saying simply ‘I don’t want to go.’ The word ‘die’ perhaps too hard to say? Or not accurately descriptive, there is that possibility too. Death being a resounding mystery, but departure much clearer. And the heartbreak of all of this. My simultaneous sense of inadequacy, yet the rousing of all available forces to simply remain, to never cut off a moment with words…and trying to find them at the same time. Finally settling for, in one form or another, I am here. I shall remain. Longer than you, yet how much longer no one can say.
A grueling, nightmarish drama that ended three years ago on this particular day, 2 April. At least one act of it.
And what is one to make of that experience of death, now, bouncing down Live Oak Avenue on this particular spring day? That aliveness is good, feeling the wind at one’s back, the day and its promise of pavement and hours and possibilities lying straight ahead, and the alertness to passing cars. And the knowledge that parked ones may rouse themselves…all this is worth praise and thanks. And seeing that these feelings arise directly from life’s failure. The cellular tearing apart of the body, fleshly dissipation, all witnessed close up in someone beloved. An event so shocking that recovery seems impossible. A blank mystery beyond pondering. And somehow it all goes on, my neighbor kids playing basketball in the parking lot, the buzzing of insect life in the spring garden, the neglected under-fertilized camellias waving their sickly leaves. And then another day. Even another season. And a next year. Three, in fact. 2012.
Getting over a death, like getting over a serious illness, cruise to be a misnomer. Unless one reconsiders the ‘over’ part. Like a small and tremulous rowboat getting over a sandbar. A definite sense of relief, even accomplishment, at clearing the underwater threat. And now one is free. And what lies beyond is something more like open ocean. Vast and deep and untrammeled. Even more frighteningly unpredictable. Which is somehow where I am now.
The body knows its own aging, senses its particular slippage. The sort of awareness that began in my 20s. Did it frighten me then? Doubtless. Except that I was more active. Much more. With expanses of mysterious time, uncharted and slopping about before me. What’s to worry? Now, with less lifespan before me, I seem to be sinking into fear quite easily. My saga with driving an old Ford van with quadriplegia-friendly controls that are now turning less friendly…the current example.
The antidote to soul-sucking fear? People, or connection with them. It’s apparently famous to those familiar with TED talks, this 20-minute talk on anxiety by a psychologist from Houston. She is a mensch, let us say that. And let us also say that her experience of ‘breathing through waiting to hear about your mammogram’ rings a universal bell. Yes, if one wishes to be picky, there is a bit of psychobabble here…which can easily be combed out. In less condensed speech, the act of staying in touch with mortal fear, while finding some way to endure the experience, keeps the heart open. The pulmonary rhythm being enough to remind us that the beat goes on elsewhere. Until it ends, of course. But as long as it is beating, even beating with fear, or perhaps especially with fear, we are experiencing what people experience. And it is this last part that I easily forget. We are all afraid. It helps when we are open and afraid together. A gift I tried to give to Marlou, for she had given others to me. And as they say, the beat goes on.