My mom lifted her shirt and asked me to look at her ribs. I was on the couch. She sat in her wheelchair. “It hurts,” she said, “Can you see anything?” Leaning closer I searched where her fingers pointed. There was a patch of skin tinted the purple of a fading bruise. Skin I’d known for 39 years. Skin that smelled like home. Skin that housed more love than I’ve ever experienced elsewhere. Skin that aged years in months. My fingers brushed the surface. I felt silk over bubble wrap. “They’re probably some of the tumors, mom,” I said gently.
Earlier that week she had met with her oncologist. What must have started years before as an imperceptible division of cells within her breast now had a foothold in her lungs, liver, kidneys, and bones. The tumors overlaying her ribs were the most unsettling proof of the disease’s progression. Her doctor suggested immediate radiation. The treatment could slow growth. It could buy time. If not, the tumors might mushroom through the skin leaving her seeping and in agony. Even so, my mother gave the doctor a firm no.
Refusing medical treatment takes steel. Something even stronger is required in the face of a possibly painful end. My mom had this impalpable metal – forged from an unwavering faith that life and death were part of life itself. Both a mystery. Brimming with good. Replete with bad. All natural. Through this lens, she opened to a mystery beyond the expertise of her doctor. And like in Zeno’s paradox of the tortoise and Achilles where one can only ever approach a destination, my mom and I grabbed each other by the hand and tried to cross the great divide.
I’m not suggesting anyone else should follow suit. I’m trying to be specific about how my mom chose to live and die. This choice was her right, and right for her. And, it became one of her great gifts to me. Because in her own gentle way my mother revealed that the grim reaper has always been in the room. At her side. At mine. At yours. And her response was to meet death eye-to-eye and say, be not afraid.
So I searched death’s face with trepidation. Death is solely unforgiving at first glance. The unknown, terrifying. Yet, in walking side-by-side with my mom those 22 months, I began to glimpse a different visage. A skull covered in eternal spring. Because even while the reaper shadowed my mom’s every move it whispered “life, life, life,” beseeching us to suck the marrow from time itself. It was the gift of truly living.
“She outlived her disease,” is what her hospice nurse said when my mom passed away many months after her oncologist predicted. That was October 26th, 2016. On this almost two-year mark, I’ve come to an outlandish post where I believe death deserves a seat at this beautifully laid table of life. I want its power to give and take to be part of a brave conversation. One we hold eye-to-eye, and heart-to-heart. Maybe then when the grim reaper does come, always too early, we will have forged enough of our own impalpable metal to help us choose “life, life, life,” as we shake from saying goodbye.
Much love, Robynne
*photo courtesy of Shirt Minion