I should title this “What I’m learning” I suppose, as my dear friend is still here with us today, as far as I know. But I’m afraid her time is drawing near, and she desperately desires heaven over her cancer-ridden, pain-filled body.
We became friends in a very special way. She was a painting instructor at Michaels and I was an art enthusiast who had no formal painting knowledge and too many canvases. I stopped by her promotional booth and chatted quickly but knew I couldn’t afford lessons. I had just moved out and into my first apartment months ago and there was no way I could fit art lessons into my budget. We met a second time in the paint aisle, chatted some more, and as fate would have it, she offered to trade fine art lessons for digital art lessons and our friendship grew from there.
When we met, she had been cancer free for a few years. I didn’t know this right away, but she had survived staged IV lung cancer when she only had a 5% survival diagnosis. She’s very spirited and told her doctors God let her know she’d make it through. And so she did, to their astonishment.
But we are beautiful souls trapped in bodies that malfunction and age, and even with her prior miracle, she found herself hospitalized with pneumonia about 4-5 years later, and that is when they found nodes of cancer sprouting in her body, in her bones this time.
She was given until Winter 2017, and by God’s grace, is still here, and may see another birthday very soon. But all this time she’s been in hospice, and grows weaker, thinner, and lives in more pain.
Here’s what I’ve learned in this year and a half of her slowly dying:
1. Cancer is a horrible, horrible thing…
I would not wish cancer on my worst enemy. This deterioration I’ve witnessed is heartbreaking. My friend is a spirited, spunky, opinionated, lovely Italian lady. She was very high energy, and now needs to gather strength to speak.
2. It is important to let your friend have what independence she has left.
Sometimes there is victory in the struggle. I vocalize my want to help in the beginning, and wait for her to ask for assistance unless it’s relayed through body language. If I feel she might be at risk, I’m by her side to keep her from falling, or I ask specifically to give a hand then. Letting her feel able-bodied is very important. When someone grows weak and is unable to do many things on their own, they take pride in what they can do. Don’t take that away from them.
3. There will be tears and conflicted feelings.
We’ve cried together a lot. In the earlier parts of hospice there were dark days with crying and regret for a life snuffed short, and other days were infused with hope for another healing to take place. I wept when she wept, and I laughed when she laughed. And while the spectrum of feelings was hard on me, I felt honored to share those moments with her of absolute despair or wonderful hope.
4. Don’t disrespect their vocal wishes to die.
This is particularly hard on me. No one wants a friend to die. It hurts to hear them want death. I wanted to bawl every time she mentioned it. And I was there when other friends were present, and reacted by saying, “Oh don’t say that!” or “You’ll get better, I know it.” I can’t blame them. Those responses are almost default. But you know what that does? It disrespects my friend’s raw honesty and discounts her feelings. As much as it hurt me to stifle my desires to react the same, I try to reply. “I know. I’m sorry this feels unbearable.” I know there is solace for her in confiding the desire to die with someone else. I don’t want to take that away from her.
5. There is a de-nesting period.
There was a point where the cancer spread and more pain medicine was required and my friend knew chances were very slim for recovery. At this point, she began to think about end of life tasks. This was also hard. She would look around a room and try to note who she would pass things too. She didn’t want to burden her kids. Many times I visited she’d give me little things, useful things, that she wanted to clear but knew others could use. Packs of pens, office supplies, very appreciated paint brushes, and little crafting odds and ends. Sometimes if it was a larger item I’d politely let her know I didn’t have room for it, but for things she didn’t ask if I wanted and just gave, I accepted it graciously. We worked on gathering photos for a slideshow at her future memorial. Things that seemed morbid to me were just preparation for the future, and I had to learn to see it that way.
6. There is a unique intimacy.
This intimacy is two-fold. One is practical, as in, they may show you what is wrong or feel comfortable with you being the room when nurses or aids are helping them. She has lifted her nightgown to show me the way cancer has affected her, with the nodes and bumps all over her back, the way her ribs poke through so prominently now. The other is a deep sense of connection and friendship. We don’t know if this meeting is our last, so we enjoy each other’s company that much more.
7. Visitation is hard. You will leave depleted.
Visiting her leaves me tired. Sometimes it leaves me pretending to be stronger than I am emotionally around her, and crying the entire drive home. It is not easy seeing a friend grow weaker knowing she could go at any moment. I feel very drained. But I do not regret our weekly meeting. It is always worth it.
8. There is hope in heaven.
I know that one day, whenever her last breath is breathed, that there is hope in heaven. She is a devout Catholic, and I am a Christian, and while some of our doctrine does not align, we both have our hope and salvation in what Jesus Christ did for us by living a perfect life as God and a human man, dying on the cross, and resurrecting three days later. I have hope that she will be in the presence of our savior. And that is beautiful, to know her body will be cancer free and she will never be sick again. I wish that hope for everyone I know.
Her birthday is next Monday, and I know she doesn’t want to be around for it. I have peace knowing whether or not she is granted heaven before her birthday, that she feels ready and we’ve shared many Mondays over the last few years together.