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. 

12 Comments

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

12 Responses to Cancer in a COVID World

  1. Pamela May

    Oh my, this just popped up on my phone, probably because I was re-reading your beautiful love letter yesterday, Lisa. It has brought tears again. Yesterday Richard and I went to the cemetery to finally order her marker. Thank you everyone for your sweet and loving comments, I’m just seeing them two months later because I didn’t know there were comments here.

    Just this morning, Trisha and I took two very full cars loads of Barbie’s things to a consignment shop in West Seattle where her good friend volunteers. All the proceeds go for cancer. I almost cried when I handed her Barbie’s reversible faux fur long coat that she wore so much. But I’m very blessed to have many, many of her things.

    I try to focus on her joy and happiness and not on my grief. Some days it’s harder than others. I think with Richard moving soon and someone else living in their house and giving away so many of her things has caused more emotion lately.

    What a wonderful gift this beautiful woman gave us! How blessed we are to have had her in our lives!!

    Love to all

    • That is one of the hardest tasks, I think, the redistributing of personal things. Their energy is imbued in special, lovely, physical objects. I highly recommend keeping a few unique, meaningful tokens. I can imagine the heartache in giving her fur coat away. Though time can help, I don’t think losses of this magnitude are ever healed. I think of you always, Pammy, and especially now with all these many many changes. You are such a light in the lives of so many. I hope you feel that warmth coming back to you, surrounding you in your mourning. I send you love from far away.

  2. Tina Winn

    What a beautiful story and description of our beloved Barbie. I cried everyday after hearing the news and it was especially hard not being able to visit and be with her. While she was going through cancer treatment she would almost always show up for family events. Birthdays, holidays, sister lunches, just stopping by to visit, Etc. and was always in High Spirits with a smile on her face. I really don’t know how she did it she was so frail and had lost so much weight. I miss her every day but I’m glad she is now out of pain and in heaven with those she loves. Rest in peace my dear auntie, love you

    Tina and Mike Winn

    • Oh, Tina. I’m so sorry. You were close, like physically close, daily life close. I love how everyone in Seattle spent time together. It is truly a blessing to have family like that. I think probably one we take for granted until something shakes us to our core. But then again, I don’t think any of us take it for granted. I know the Pullen clan, certainly does not. I am sure Aunt Barbara, freed from her pain and limitations is now beaming her love to all of us. I hope you can feel her with you, cousin. I love you.

  3. Alena Brown

    You have written a beautiful tribute for your aunt. I used to live in your Grandma and Bill’s ward in Federal Way, and I’m thankful for the privilege of knowing them. I pray that your family finds comfort in knowing that this separation is temporary.

    • Thank you, Alena. What kind words. And thank you for your comforting prayers–I do think faith sustains through heartbreak and grief. The thought of being reunited brings immense hope. Thank you for reading.

  4. Cindy

    I both saw and felt your vivid expressions of love, grief, joy, memories, and hope. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful description of such a lovely spirit. By this I feel I have come to know Barbie so much better….rest in peace sweet one.

  5. Starlyn Hjorth

    This is beautiful Lisa. I love my Pullen family so much! My mom loved those little kids as her own. I hope we can get better acquainted sometime.
    Love, Starlyn

    • Me too, Starlyn! I was disappointed I couldn’t come up to Boise last year. Tell me who your mom is again. Is she Grandma’s (Florence’s) sister? Thank you for reading.

  6. thedamari

    This is a beautiful tribute.

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