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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

Exquisite Grief

And when she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the sun.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

And now it’s happened: I’ve lost my mother. She laid down her broken body—soft and comforting still, but no longer up to the task of moving her through the days — and died. She laid down her weary head, the short-circuiting neurons in her brain finally quiet, and slept.

In her own bed, under her lovely floral quilt, she drifted away and left physical concerns behind in the vessel housing them. Her breathing stretched, the silence between each ragged inhalation hung with anticipation. Her pounding heart slowed and faded to a quiver, like the fluttering wings of a little bird, until it beat no more. My sister quoted Shakespeare: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” For Mom, the pace has ceased its forward motion; there are no more tomorrows. And in retrospect, the petty becomes hallowed. “Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow . . .”

I knew it was coming, or rather, that she was going. For months, I mourned her absence even in her presence, trying to absorb everything and indelibly imprint her image on my memory. The days, finite and measured, poured like sand through the hourglass as I watched them go. I knew I would lose my mother, but I didn’t know it would bring me to my knees.

I didn’t know how heavy grief could be, that I’d drag myself under its weight from my bed each morning, pulled into motion only by the slipstream of routine. Even then, fatigue would leave me to endure the hours until I could curl up again, alone. I didn’t know the world would be too loud and too bright and too fast, its audacity for going on as if the cosmos hadn’t shifted unforgivable. I didn’t know I’d hide from my neighbors or seek solace nightly in wine or toss and turn restlessly in my sleep, dreaming of something just out of my grasp. I didn’t know it would feel like depression.

I didn’t know it would hit this hard, losing my 71-year-old mother to multiple sclerosis. I didn’t think I was entitled to the same bereavement as my friend who lost her 21-year-old son, full of potential, to a heroine overdose; or my friend, whose 5-year-old grandson was taken by a brain tumor before his life had even begun; or my sister, whose husband died of kidney cancer when he was 47, leaving a young son fatherless. Because Mom had been ill for decades and because I’d planned for the end of her life, because she’d become increasingly distraught and difficult, because she suffered, because she was at peace and ready, because I believe her death to be merely a transition—for all these reasons I thought my sorrow would be tempered. I know now, it matters not if the death is tragic or abrupt or expected, if the life has been long or interrupted; grief pierces and reverberates through all who have loved and lost.

I didn’t know it would lodge in my body, that I’d tamp down and swallow my emotions. That staying busy would be a coping mechanism. That avoiding reminders and seeking distractions would keep me functionally numb, but one handwritten note could unravel my hold. I didn’t know it would be a physical urge, this need to cry, and when unleashed, the intensity would crash over me in waves, plunging me under and washing me to shore only when the tide went out. I didn’t know I’d be a private mourner, that I’d get through the memorial with only a few tears, but in the dark of night, in my husband’s arms, I’d finally weep unabashedly, like a child.

I didn’t know people could show such tenderness, that when I returned home I’d find my friends had cleaned my house and left plants and flowers and cards and nourishing food. I didn’t know their generosity would humble me profoundly, that every thought and prayer, every gesture, every act of service would soften the pain and blur the edges.

I didn’t know I could miss my sisters so terribly, the airport goodbyes a severing. I didn’t know we would merge into the embodiment of the best of our mother, that separation would feel unnatural, impossible even. I knew the sacred experience of nurturing the exodus of our mother’s spirit from this world would bring us closer; I didn’t know escorting her body under a full moon to the teaching hospital where she would donate her brain for research would be just as holy.

I knew we’d draw comfort from each other, but I didn’t know heaving sobs punctuated by belly laughs could be so cathartic, that the somber ceremony of scattering her ashes at the ocean’s edge on a cold, overcast day could suddenly turn uproariously funny when one sister, attempting a dramatic toss into the wind, tripped and fell into the freezing surf. I didn’t know we would celebrate our mother’s magnificent life with champagne toasts, crying as we sang along to Helen Reddy and Anne Murray and Karen Carpenter.

I knew we were strong women, that working hard was inextricably woven into who she raised us to be. But, I didn’t know we could clean out her apartment in 3½ days, a whole life summarized in the boxes we carted to my sister’s garage. I didn’t know evidence of Mom’s bravery and integrity would manifest in the intimate task of settling her affairs; not only proof of her creative, tenacious resilience—the hallmark of her personality, but also, signs of her mental decline no one could see.

I knew she was loved by many, not only friends, but those to whom she bonded with fierce loyalty, her chosen family. I didn’t know I’d dread the task of calling each one to deliver the news, that the words would stick in my throat. I didn’t know that their lives would also be bereft without her and I’d be compelled to comfort them, even as my own heart was breaking.

I knew the daily texts would stop, that I wouldn’t hear her voice exclaiming, “Hi, honey!” on the other end of the phone, that when she came to visit it was the last time. I didn’t know when I logged into her account and shut off her electricity the sudden realization of its permanence would take my breath away. I didn’t know I’d question if I should have done more and agonize over whether I’d been enough. I didn’t know I’d ache for her forgiveness.

I knew she’d stay close, that we would feel her; I didn’t know she would come to me when I was exhausted and spent, in the dream-like trance of half-sleep, and spread comfort like warmth through my chest, or when I was quiet and contemplative, in a cool breeze, gently caressing my face and answering my question, “Is that you, Mom?”

I didn’t know the previous contentment with my pretty little life would now feel like complacency; that restless whispers would become clamoring discontent, catapulting me into change and insisting I choose a different path. I didn’t know this transformation was not hers alone; it was mine as well. I know now I’ll never be the same, but therein lies the gift: the pain that shattered my carefully crafted day-to-day, leaving me to ponder my purpose and revisit the very meaning of my existence, has allowed me to create the reality I was born to live.

I know now losing my mother hurts like hell; her absence incarnate is like a light gone out and it will be dark for a while. But in the darkness, I awaken. Holding hands with divinity, I glimpse that I, too am divine. My loss is not diminished by this blissful epiphany, and surprisingly, I’m glad. I don’t want its sharpness blunted. I welcome the overflowing experience, brutal one moment and glorious the next. I did not know, I could not know I would cherish my grief, a grief made exquisite because I loved her so. As I love her now. As I will forever more. This I always knew.

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In the Love Place

And so lying underneath those stormy skies
She’d say, oh, I know the sun must set to rise.

Paradise by Coldplay

~For Richard, Heidi and Gabriel~

It was Sunday afternoon. The weekend that seemed to stretch out enticingly before me on Friday was, for all intents and purposes, over. I sat on the couch, mindlessly surfing Facebook, playing Angry Birds. I had the ‘Sunday blues,’ that restless dissatisfaction that strikes around 5:00 p.m. when the realization that a weekend filled with relaxation and leisure is just not going to materialize. This happens frequently. My days get filled with grocery shopping, running kids to activities, projects at home, work issues, and other mundane tasks. My fun time gets relegated to Saturday night after the kids go to bed and I pass out halfway through a movie.

I felt a shift coming in the weather foretold by the pounding headache that stormed my skull. Sitting alone I looked out the window at the gathering clouds and malaise settled over me as I thought with a sigh how the girls would be home shortly. I’d have to get up from this couch to start the nighttime routine: wrangle up dinner, corral kids into the shower and herd them to bed. I’d go through Friday folders (Sunday night folders, let’s be real) and look ahead to everyone’s schedules, gearing up for another busy week.

But that was all before I got the news that my brother-in-law had died. Just 45 minutes earlier, while I was lamenting the end of the weekend, he’d taken his last breath and given up the battle he’d waged to the finish. Though he and my sister were separated, in the end, their differences didn’t matter. The strife and tension between them healed spontaneously on his journey from this plane to the next. When cancer took over his body, she took him into her home. She tended to his dying and in the process found forgiveness. Her focus was on creating lasting memories for her son, their son.  He is seven, my nephew, much too young to lose his father. And his father, much too young to lose his life.

Richard suffered in pain and struggled for every breath. He had not come peacefully to his death. The denial tortured both he and Heidi. When his agitation became too great, the meds gave relief and he drifted in a morphine-induced fog. My sister lay down with her husband, pressing her body to his, her mouth to his ear. 

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