As 2018 comes to a close, I am remembering a friend who died this year. Over a period of many months, we had these wonderful talks that seemed a lot like Tuesdays with Morrie,* with moments of her insight shared during our conversations over coffee breaks and lunches. Being a medical professional herself provided it’s own special challenge, along with the sense that this was happening way too soon.
Her peaceful exit followed a couple of years of really “living” and making the days count, in spite of cancer. Below are some highlights of her learned wisdom.
On having a “Bucket List”:
“I don’t have a lot left to do, not that I didn’t want another twenty or thirty years, but I don’t have a ‘bucket list’, or a lot of things I need to get done. I’ve had a great life.”
On having the hard conversations:
“I’ve had all those dinners and hard conversations with my family, even though they rolled their eyes and didn’t want to, they now are pretty ok with talking about this…”
“When I asked her (my doctor) to be real with me, and give me all the information without holding back, you know, ‘none of the bullshit, I want to know everything’— She did just that, she talked in-depth, in medical jargon (knowing I understood this) and about every possibility and treatment option, until my eyes glazed over. I didn’t mean all that information! Talk about doctors not listening to the real message!”
On options, self-advocating and DWD:
“Speaking of options, She (the doctor) said I could retire— like that is an option!
With regards to chemotherapy treatment: “She (my doctor) thought I might get two years, but what would that take, to buy two years? I think I have a few months.”
(I ask, ‘What makes you think you only have a few months?’)
“Well, I don’t want to financially, emotionally and physically bankrupt my family. It’s why I’m glad I live in a state like Oregon, where I have some say about that. I’m glad to have options.”
We talk a little more about DWD in the state of Oregon, though she is not totally certain this is what she will do. (She is just happy to have a choice, she tells me. And ultimately she decides not to go that route.)
On continuing treatment:
“I was kind of convinced (by my doctor) that this new treatment might give me a couple of years, instead of only a couple of months. So I did a handful of treatments, and I was so sick, and the tumors grew, and I said I didn’t want to do anymore chemo even though she was a little upset with me. I know this is something everyone does differently. For me, I get as much benefit from the other approaches I’ve taken.”
(In addition to living many months past the predicted time, even without continuing treatment, she has used things like massage, meditation, acupuncture and imagery and successfully reduced the need for significant amounts of pain medication in the midst of a very aggressive cancer with metastasis.)
“I’ve taught them (the hospice team) some things about palliative care, and I am directing my own care, even though I know I’m not in control…” and she punctuates this statement with a deep, gusty laugh.
On grief and guilt:
“I’ll tell you a story. When my daughter died, I carried grief around with me for 20 years. It was a burden that I could not put down, only a monster would lay down that grief! I knew it was my burden to carry. I didn’t want to be a monster…
Then, when I was on vacation in the islands, I went to a healer for a facial and massage, and she told me I could have a ‘reading’ for free. I don’t know if you’re into that kind of stuff, and I am not sure if its real or not, I just know what happened. She told me in the middle of things that I didn’t have to keep burdening myself with my grief, that it was ok to lay it down. I realized how much a part of my body that grief had become, how guilty I would feel without it, and what a monster I would be to let it go. And then it dawned on me how ridiculous that was, that I didn’t have to continue to carry it with me, that in fact my daughter if she were here would be so upset with me that I had carried it for the past 20 years. I learned from that very day to begin living without that heavy guilt of grief, and I have continued to experience this sense of freedom every day since.”
On writing her legacy:
“I know that we don’t always share the dark things, the parts of us that we aren’t proud of, our mistakes, the things that in fact form us to be who we are as humans. I need to tell the story of my dark places, my mistakes that are a big part of me.”
On lessons learned:
“It’s hard to say what has been the greatest lesson. I realized I was not in control of anything. I am not in charge. And I learned to let go…I will have to let go of everything. But even though I say I’ve learned the lesson, you know how that goes…everyday this is a lesson I must repeat! (She chuckles, and smiles knowingly.)
“So much to do, so many projects to get done, and I worry I won’t get it all done. But then I realize I will get done what I am supposed to.”
My last visit, as we sat quietly on a not-so-good day, she told me she had finally finished her projects, completed the family gifts of mementos to remind them all of her… later on. She looked a little forlorn as she whispered “I don’t know why I’m still here. I was supposed to die a long time ago”. But some of us know how blessed we were to have her stay, even a little while longer.
(*Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom)