Monday, May 28, 2012

Hard Things

This post was originally written in April, 2008 for another blog and appears today in honor of my sister-in-law, Lesley, who died yesterday morning after a four year battle with cancer. I was fortunate to have a long conversation with Lesley two weeks ago and discussed things that we had neglected to discuss over the decades that we've known each other, thinking that there would be more time to get to them later. "Later" came much too soon. I encourage you to look for ways to be more present with the relationships in your every-day lives because life can pass by so very quickly.

I am dying.

It has taken me some time to be able to come to terms with this fact.  I have dealt with this reality in the past, but it was something that I was able to put on the back burner for a while, but now it is staring me in the face and I must embrace it.

The condition that I have is mortality and I think I have about 30 – 40 years, maybe longer if I take care of myself, and play my cards right, but as with any diagnosis, one never really knows. This condition is something I was born with and have had to learn over time to adjust to, but I have spent much of my life being in denial about the fact that this is a terminal condition.

I arrived at a deeper acceptance of my condition while attending what I am looking at as a pre-funeral for my cousin Chip.  When I was a young child, I lived with his family for a while.  He was my biggest brother.  As we grew up in different parts of the country and then raising our families, working and living life as parents and spouses, we grew apart save for the contact at the annual family reunions that we might both happen to attend on the same years.

Initially, the concept of attending this pre-funeral seemed a little odd, I must admit.  Upon learning of my cousins declining health, it was advised that if I wanted to see him before he died, “now” was the time. When I discussed making this trip with my husband, I said that I felt weird going to visit someone because they were dying (we did not know at that time if he had days or weeks to live). In our culture, death is something not discussed – ESPECIALLY with the person who is dying. I said, “I just don’t know about going.  I mean, he will know I am coming because I think he is dying, and I don’t know how he’ll feel, implying that I think he is going to die (acknowledging that the proverbial elephant IS actually in the room).  I don’t want to draw attention to his death, or anything.”  With the level-headedness that keeps me grounded, my husband replied, “Do you think that his impending death is something he is not already aware of?” 

I remembered my brother’s funeral nearly 20 years earlier and the 500+ people who packed the church for his service.  I remember thinking at the time how nice it would have been for my brother to know that there were that many people who cared about him before his death.  When people spoke to my family at his visitation and told us the imprint or impact my brother’s life had left on them, I longed for a way for them to let him know first-hand.

As I write this, I am still visiting my extended family.  I have had several occasions to visit with my cousin.  He has said some things to me that he said he wished he could have said a long time ago.  I have done likewise.  In the hospital he is constantly surrounded by many members of his extended family.  Repeatedly, I have heard him say how grateful he is for this opportunity that he has to see all of the people that he loves, and that he knows love him, and how truly meaningful this is.  I see him growing weaker each day but he seems so peaceful.  Acknowledging the “elephant,” we’ve had the opportunity to actually talk about death. I have been able to ask him about things that I wonder about when considering my own mortality, and he has given me some great answers.  My conversations with him have taken away some of my own anxiety about my own terminal condition - my mortality.

My cousin refers to this time as a great gift for him.  I think of this time as a great gift for all of us involved.  “Hard” does not equal “bad”, “hard” is just “hard”, and even though this is “HARD” it is bringing about some “good” things - greater compassion, deeper communication, empathy, tenderness, and the value of being present (although the "BEST" thing would be to keep him here, with his family and friends for a lot longer).  Many of these good things we would all rather learn by reading a book or taking a class, but we don’t always get that luxury. 

Follow-up to this post: Chip died less than two weeks after our visit. Being able to visit with him during that time was priceless.

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