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Cancer in a COVID World

There are moments when the veil seems
almost to lift, and we understand what
the earth is meant to mean to us — the
trees in their docility, the hills in
their patience, the flowers and the
vines in their wild, sweet vitality.
Then the Word is within us, and the
Book is put away.

Mary Oliver, The Veil

They called her Barbie, an apt moniker for her given name. A real-live Barbie doll, she was tall, gorgeous, voluptuous, blonde. But she also carried herself with the elegance of a Barbara. Moviestar glamour. Dressed to the nines and turning heads. She made you feel important when she bestowed her attention on you. She was all yours. Her eyes held an almost mischievous twinkle, while her gorgeous, wide-mouthed smile lifted on one side only. Her laugh was sensuous, subtle.

Dad emailed on Monday. ​

“Good morning, kids. Our dear Barbie passed through the veil last night about 9:15 pm Seattle time. She never woke up again since she went to sleep Thursday evening. It was a very blessed and peaceful passing. No more pain and trauma to her little body.”

There are five of them, my dad and his siblings, stair stepping, like a single slinky, one child pouring into the next: girl-boy-boy-girl-girl. Trisha, Bill, Maynard—my father, then Barbara, and Pammy, the youngest. Maybe it was their humble beginnings, growing up with working class parents in a small mountain town, poor, but happy. Maybe it was my grandparents’ tough love or the necessity of relying on family, but whatever the reason, my father and his sibs are tight. Throughout life’s adversities, into their 70s and 80s now, they’ve remained best friends and one another’s fiercest champions. They have faced and conquered everything together.

Until pancreatic cancer.

The last time I saw her was six months ago when I flew up for Grandma’s funeral. Six months and a lifetime ago—before the coronavirus pandemic. The matriarch of our clan lived until she was nearly 104; those are some great genes I’ve inherited. At times immortality seemed a real possibility. I hadn’t seen Aunt Barbara since diagnosis, but there were photos. Plus I know how this disease ravages and torments. Reassurances from my family, however, emphasized Barbara’s resilience. Her spirits were fully intact, her faith strong, her smile as radiant as ever. 

Chic in a pale silk pantsuit and leather ankle boots, she wore a floor-length fur draped over her shoulders to ward off the chill. Still strikingly beautiful, cancer had chiseled her porcelain features into a sharp likeness, a sculpture of herself, without rounded curves. The gauntness in her face pained me, but when I wrapped my arms around her fragile bird bones, I felt the wracking of her body reverberate through mine, and the tears I would not show her collected under my closed lids. ​


I pictured a photo of Barbara, circa 1970-something snapped as she posed seductively next to a white Jaguar parked on the beach in Southern California. The blue sky merged with blue ocean. Her Breck girl hair whipped in the wind. With savvy sophistication, she embodied the beauty I aspired to in my little girl hero-worship.   

We spent days circled up on sectionals, recliners, and pulled-up kitchen chairs. Hours of conversation, catching up on years worth of life, reminiscing about the past. Barbara was there for much of it, though sometimes, succumbing to exhaustion, she’d curl up on a stretch of couch, unwilling to miss anything. Her husband, Richard would unfold a soft blanket and tuck it around her edges, pat her gently while continuing the conversation. Even if she drifted in and out, she was still there, dammit.

She was still there.

 I noticed with amusement through the waning of the hours that she wasn’t the only one who dozed. At some point or another, every one of my elders nodded off. With arms folded, chin dropped to chest or sitting erect and perfectly still, eyes closed. With opportunity, a head might loll back, the mouth open slightly. Upon waking, the process of re-orienting played across their faces. The catnaps obviously granted these septa- and octo-genarians a second wind, for their stamina far outpaced mine. 

Wiped out by 10:00 pm on my last night, I retreated to the quiet darkness of Aunt Trisha’s bedroom. Intending only to rest my eyes, I crashed hard despite the cascading laughter coming through the walls. Blearily I roused when light flooded the room through a crack in the door. 

I jumped up, seeing it was Barbara.

“You’re not leaving, are you?”

“No,” she whispered. “Just getting my coat. Go back to sleep.”

“But, don’t go without saying goodbye,” I said urgently, emphatically. “I’ll get up. I want to see you before you go.”

She eased the door shut with a soft click and I laid my head back down, fighting to stay alert. I kept my focus half-cocked toward the door, intuiting how like her it would be to slip out quietly so as not to wake me. I later emerged to find everyone still chatting leisurely around the dining table, except for Barbara. Richard had taken her home.

Time was up.

Tomorrow morning I’d leave for the airport and I knew I would not be back to say goodbye. Considering it had taken me years to make it up to Seattle from my Midwestern home, the crushing knowledge landed: I would not see her again in this lifetime.

Not in person, at least. She did appear in a small window on my computer screen. The lock-down birthed a weekly Monday family Zoom, a calamitous Brady Bunch-style cacophony of technical gymnastics that proved to be quite entertaining. Close-ups of foreheads, noses, and blank walls, interference and background noise, competing conversations both on and off the digital airwaves.

“Can you hear me?”

“We can’t hear you. You have to click unmute!”

“I can’t see anybody.”

“Can you see me?”

“I can see you!”

“Who said that?”

A scan of the familiar, beloved faces revealed our shared genetics. Dad and Uncle Bill, ruggedly handsome, channeled my beloved Grandpa, Shorty he was called, gone some 22 years. I compared my sisters faces with my cousins, finding the same eyes, cheekbones, smiles. Across the generations, across the country, we gathered in this virtual space, in real time, in a way we never could in a physical sense. We compared notes about work, school, developments from state to state, how we were all coping. We scheduled around Barbara’s chemotherapy treatments and she attended as many as she could, bantering along with the rest of us.

Between one Zoom and the next, she was admitted to the hospital in horrible pain. The tumors overtaking her digestive system had obstructed nutrients and were beginning to prohibit organ function. She’d been there before—deathly ill, touch and go, but she’d always rebounded. This time there would be no rallying. 

Even knowing the eventuality, it is never palatable. It is never acceptable.

But here it was.

Barbara found Richard, the love of her life, when she was nearly 50, when she’d seen enough of the world to know what she wanted. A devoted, adoring couple, they built a rich, beautiful life, though 25 years was not nearly long enough. They fully intended to ride out any challenge as they always did. Now, they were being told there was nothing left to try. Palliative care and end of life decisions had to be made and as excruciatingly difficult as that was, navigating it through a global pandemic held heartbreaking ramifications.

Visits were allowed, but only Richard and Pammy. The other sibs were too high risk themselves, and in my father’s case, too far away. Restrictions and time limits applied. My first thoughts were stories of nurses who, acting as proxy, held the hands of dying patients when their loved ones couldn’t be with them. In my mind is burned the stark image of an elderly husband outside the window of his wife’s hospital room, desperate to comfort her through the glass separating them. I’d heard of FaceTime death vigils, FaceTime confessions, FaceTime farewells.

Through my personal losses, I’ve learned the most brilliant epiphany of approaching death is the invitation to embrace life fully. The mundane becomes holy. The simple act of breathing, a gift. To love and be loved, a sacrament. 

For Barbie, and Richard, and everyone who loved her, the most significant blessing came when she got to come home. She would not be isolated in a sterile hospital.

She would not be alone at the end of her life.

Once settled, on one last morning of lucidity, she was showered with texts and emails and videos and songs from her large family. She talked with her siblings and gave them the goodbyes they desperately needed. 

On the small screen of a phone held close to her face, my dad told his little sister how much he loved her, then asked tenderly, “Barbie, are you afraid?”

“Oh, nooooo,” she cooed peacefully.

It was permission. If she could walk into the next world without fear, her family could let her go. 

She died on Sunday night. On Monday afternoon, our next Zoom began with the usual fits and starts as folks logged on, checked their mics, adjusted camera angels. Simultaneous greetings and conversations zig-zagged across the gallery. The geometric family tree took shape as new people blinked into existence in their individual cubicles. There were jokes about how Richard’s love of Jack-in-the-Box tacos required a detour on the way home from the hospital, followed by the question, “Jack-in-the-Box has tacos?” followed by incredulous laughter. There was good-natured ribbing from Richard to Pammy about in-laws who get into their fridge and overstay their welcome. 

Then we got down to the hard stuff. 

“What can we do for you?” everyone asked Richard.

“I can’t believe it,“ he said. 

“It doesn’t seem real,” Pammy sobbed despondently. She’d lost her best friend.

With minimal detail, they told us how once home from the hospital, they’d never left Barbara’s side. When she took her last breath, they were there. They said she passed three days nearly to the minute after slipping into unconsciousness.

“I’m so proud of her,” Richard said and rubbed the stubble of his unshaven chin.

His understated grief not only triggered my own, but the empathy I felt for him brought me to the ugly cry. I covered my mouth with my hand and let the tears come. Lately, my emotions are scrubbed up raw. Tender, like new skin. My nerve endings fire all the time. I feel everything without a buffer, as if there are no more desensitizing layers laid down with busy, distracted, numbing activity.

The pandemic has stripped me clean. 

This, too, might be a gift, though it hardly seems so when it hurts this badly. Everything shines with meaning now. Grief begs me to take it in and absorb the simple, extraordinary presence of love, wherever and however it shows up.

The funeral will be live-streamed via teleconferencing software, much like our family Zooms. Music, prayers, memories will be shared. A eulogy. A slideshow. Through the window of our computer screens we’ll view the service from our living rooms. We’ll reach out for comfort through the interwebs. We’ll mourn together while we’re apart which seems nearly poetic in its brutality. We cannot be together, even to commemorate our beloved’s life, yet nothing can keep us apart. The connection is stronger and resonates beyond any tangible barrier. It cannot be severed by cancer or COVID or even death.

At the end of his email to me and my seven siblings, Dad wrote, “Life is so short. Forgive each other. My parents are gone, a younger sibling is gone. Our lives will be over in a moment. Be thankful for every day that God gives you breath.”

In these moments I’m comforted, when I see beyond the veil. Brief, fleeting moments of unobscured truth. Nothing can separate us, for we are never apart. Not here, not now. Not ever. 

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Filed under Aging, Cancer, COVID-19, Family, Grandparents, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Pandemic, Siblings

View From A Quarantine

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

“Be careful what you wish for,” my mother used to say.

“You just might get it.” A wise woman, whose words I often disregarded when she was alive, her advice has been on my mind a lot lately. 

Time, as we experience it on this plane–as we have all agreed, is linear. A steadily-paced constant. Yet I know I’m not alone in the perception of its acceleration. In recent years I’ve felt more and more like a hamster on its wheel, running frenetically in a perpetual, never-ending race. My days consisted of  rushing to commitments, appointments, and activities packed into an impossibly tight schedule and coordinating the inherent overlapping and conflicting logistics of the same. Fueled by a bottomless to-do list, my go-mode was switched to “over-drive” nearly 24/7. 

Until March 15th, that is. Before that fateful date, I ran myself ragged trying to keep up, all the while complaining about being too busy. 

“I don’t have time. There’s never enough time!” 

The words chanted in my head on repeat, serving as the mantra that simultaneously reflected and solidified my reality. The words streaming on a loop were sent upward, a prayer, intended or not, pleading Please, slow me down.”

And then, the pandemic stopped life in its tracks. 

Our family chose social isolation earlier than the rest of Columbia because of our most vulnerable member, 20-year-old Sydney. People with Down syndrome are more susceptible to a variety of health concerns, among them, respiratory issues. When she was two, we nearly lost her. Hospitalized with pneumonia that quickly spread to both lungs, she remained in the PICU for a month, unable to come off a ventilator. Her prognosis was bleak until suddenly . . . it wasn’t. The doctors persisted, her treatment worked, and her little body fought its way back from the brink. Once she turned around, recovery was astonishingly quick.

Steven and I have no desire to revisit that perilous situation, hence our vigilance in quarantining. On Saturday, March 14, I taught my last group fitness class. We pulled Xander out of high school and Sydney out of her day program and part-time job. Steven continued to work from his office at home. The personal losses for each of us weighed heavy. Gone was my job of 13 years at Wilson’s Fitness, the job I love, working with and for people I adore. My kids saw their daily routines and future plans vanish into nothing. My husband bore up under the mounting pressure of economic crisis and the rippling effects crashing through the markets. ​Now every day brings more uncertainty with little reassurance to hang onto.

We watched as postponements and cancellations rolled over our community, throughout the country and the entire world. We felt every closure, shut-down, lay-off, and furlough. The great, ceaseless churning machine of the world  seemed to just . . . stop. 

At least within the sphere of my reach. 

I’m well aware that for others, life has shifted gears into an alternate reality, even more fast-paced. Those who keep our life-sustaining systems up and running, roles that were undoubtedly taken for granted before, warrant hero status now in the after.  Workers who make sure the lights still come on and the water runs and the garbage is picked up and the grocery shelves are stocked and goods are transported and packages are delivered and food is prepared. And particularly workers in healthcare who take care of the most vulnerable among us, who step up to practice medicine in a way no schooling could have prepared them for. The display of humanity at its best inspires me with overwhelming gratitude.

Peering out my quarantine window, I see evidence of the helpers that Fred Rogers’ mother told him to watch for and they are everywhere. It is a daunting task; we must work together if we are to get through this. But there is hope in the big picture.

The village is intact.

In reverse, looking in through the window that frames our little familial microcosm, one might observe a broad spectrum of behavior on any given day. We grapple with attempts to stay calm and present in the un-knowing of what’s ahead. Any bets on consistency are off. Some days acceptance seems effortless. Frequently, those are the days we skip the news and allow life to unfold naturally. Other days, restlessness sends us careening off the walls, ricocheting without intentional direction. The next day might find us squinting at the digital windows of Zoom to catch a glimpse of the outside world at large, each pane filled with the sight of familiar faces. Those are the days our hearts get a much-needed recharge. Then there are those intermittent down days when, without warning, a tsunami of grief rises up to pull us under.

”Is this our new normal?” we find ourselves wondering, though we know it can’t go on forever. For now, though, we have nowhere to be except right where we are and that has never happened. I recognize it for the miracle that it is. But on Day eleventy-seven of our release from the confines of routine, I’m starting to feel a little adrift.

It’s not that we haven’t explored the opportunities of open-ended free time. Just as many others, we’ve been impressively productive and participated in trending quaran-time activities: cleaning out every closet, drawer, and hoarding nightmare in the house, preparing gourmet recipes and wholesome meals, working out constantly, practicing spirituality, journaling, painting, remodeling, gardening. Bursts of energy enable us to tackle long-neglected projects and finally check off those to-do lists with great satisfaction.

But not every day. 

Coping with this pandemic requires more than creative solutions. Responding to this unique situation will result in more than one-size-fits-all emotion. More like a whole wardrobe in each day. For several days I’ll feel sunshiny and full of promise, then clouds unexpectedly gather, the blues set in and I wander the house, unable to concentrate, trying without success to follow the game plan I’ve laid out for the day.

It’s not just self-pity that sends my heartstrings reverberating. I watch through the windows of my laptop and iPhone and TV screen struggles framed on social media, stories of friends, loved ones, and strangers, too. They may be different than my own, but the impact is universal.

Parents in quarantine have less time, not more, wrangling children while working from home, feeding them 25 times a day and trying to provide some sort of normalcy to allay the fear that it’s “the end of the world as we know it.”

I see my friends who parent kids with special needs and find themselves overwhelmed with providing stimulation, support, therapy, and interaction without benefit of the interventions they rely on. And the strength of single parents is already herculean. Now they are taxed to unbearable levels, living out an even more literal version of “Do I have to do everything myself?”

 I watch us all worry about jobs and small businesses that may or may not make it through, about shrinking incomes, about the economy as a whole. We worry about our healthcare system, if there will be adequate supplies and equipment. We pray for those witness to suffering and death, exhausted and spent, who put their own health on the line to care for others. We pray for those navigating cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. And we pray for all those who are ill and dying. Especially at the end.

Especially when they are alone.

We’re watching a global crisis playing out in real time, in real life. A seismic shift of proportions this epic cannot be underestimated for its earth-changing aftershocks. I cast my thoughts forward to envision this new world and can’t quite come up with it. Where we’re going, I don’t know, but I do know there is only one way to get there. With compassion for ourselves and others; my mom taught me that. It’s the legacy she left me with.

 “I have one principle I hold tight to,” she said.

“Always be kind.”

“And always, always be kind to yourself.” 

We are not psychotic, it just feels like it right now. There is no right or wrong way to get through this; we’ve never done it before. Surviving comes first. But the fix for a broken world? That comes when her inhabitants emerge into a new paradigm to move beyond surviving to thriving, when new perspectives birth new possibilities. Then, the view through the quarantine window reveals its most poignant gift with brilliant clarity: in healing ourselves, we heal the world.

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Filed under Family, Gratitude, Grief, Letting Go, Motherhood, Pandemic, Self-Care