The grandmother of a friend of mine just passed away this week and it got me thinking about death again. Those of you who truly know me know death—mortality—is never far from my mind, especially since the death of my mother. Although his grandmother’s death didn’t seem to come as a huge shock there wasn’t time to prepare and getting to the funeral looked to be an impossibility. I don’t like impossibility. I’m a “where there’s a will there’s a way” sorta girl. And that mentality—or stubbornness—has gotten me far.
Some claim the realization of one’s own mortality and that of those around you is a mark of the onset of “middle age”. If so, I’ve been middle-aged since 9th grade when a boy who briefly sat near me in Latin lost his fight with Leukemia.
Death stops me in my tracks at the oddest times—the pang of possibility I may lose someone else and am helpless to stop it. When one of my ewes died suddenly a few weeks back it wrecked me for an entire day. Her dying with me right there and with me unable to do anything to stop it took me right back to my mother’s death and the helplessness I felt then.
And if you truly know me you know helplessness freaks me out.
I’m an admitted control freak.
The 13 to Life series deal a lot with death. It’s what severed Jess’s mom from the Gillmansen family. It’s the sword of Damocles hanging over each Rusakova--ready to fall way too soon.
Death’s the great equalizer, right? And depending on your belief system—your code—death’s not a big deal. It’s to be embraced.
I was like that once.
Now I have far too much to accomplish—to much to see and do yet—to embrace death. It’s selfish in a way, really—I’ve lived and seen a lot in a relatively short time.
And this is probably the worst possible time for this blog post:
Valentine’s candy and cards spatter store shelves like romantically lobbed pink and red grapeshot and everyone’s thinking about the coming of spring and *love* and I have a book releasing right after Valentine’s Day that deals with some definitely romantic stuff...
But maybe this post is some weird way my mind’s acknowledging the sheer inconvenience of death. And love. Neither takes into account your schedule, you know?
So I started writing the following stuff Wednesday in a chilly Jeep on my way to the neighboring farm. It was before I knew if I’d be driving this friend to a spot that he could get to his grandmother’s funeral or not—timing, right? Also a theme of 13 to Life.
Bear with me, please.
There is a certain grace to a killer like cancer. And I feel only someone who has watched a loved one die at its greedy claws—gnawed to nearly nothing but spirit and spark—can dare make such a claim. It’s a murderer—true—a thief of the cruelest sort—yes—but a diagnosis of end stage cancer comes with a timeline and a certain grim understanding that this may just be your last fight. At least that’s how it seemed for my mother.
Mom was a southerener, born and bred. A Daughter of the Revolution (and later the Confederacy), her people landed in Philadelphia and made the journey south through the Shenandoah Valley with little more than their fierce Scots-Irish spirit and their dogs. They settled in western North Carolina, established a breed of hounds based on those dogs of theirs and lived a simple salt-of-the-earth existence. They were proud public servants. Police, military, educators and eventually nurses—they did the jobs that most needed doing. Hard work was good for the soul (if not hard on the back) but the soul was always more important anyhow.
Mom was a spirited redhead who grew up in a small railroad town. Her daddy worked on the trains and her mama taught piano and helped with the museum in Cherokee. Times were sometimes hard and there were some dresses my mother remembered wearing as a child that were made by her mother out of the cotton comprising flour sacks.
She told tales of picking wild blueberries on the mountainsides, of the pig house her brother told her was “the home of the devil,” of being told she was going to hell by the neighborhood woman who watched her from her porch every week when mom headed to the movie theater. She told of how her daddy measured the feet of the kids too poor along the railroad tracks to afford shoes—how he traced their bare feet on scraps of cardboard, jotted down their names and used whatever extra money he could to get shoes made for them. She told tales of her dog Inky and a parakeet that made a friend think they were being watched late one night by a peeping Tom because he did a great wolf whistle. She told of how her baby brother died smothered in her mother’s womb because a doctor had insisted there was plenty of time and she told how her sister ran off with a fiddle player.
She moved north to get her education and boy did she! She’d never even heard the term “prostitute” until she came north of the Mason-Dixon. She got her Bachelor’s, her Master’s and more. She only traveled out of our country twice in her life and was completely content with what the USA had to offer even though she wasn’t always thrilled with our politics and leaders.
She and I had our moments... We went toe-to-toe about religion, clothing choices, boys, religion... Did I mention religion?
Any grace and poise and passion—that fire--I have, I owe to her. Phrases like “I can’t go into town without my face on” or “that’s leaning toward Blankenship’s” were first hers. And she made them sound far more amazing just by the lilt and tone of her voice. My freckles are hers. The red that naturally peppers my hair (let’s not discuss the fact you can no longer see its true coppery shade)—hers.
My heart? Very much hers.
She fought with cancer for a while. Lost her right leg. A teacher, an avid hiker, canoer and gardener, life changed dramatically. But she wasn’t done fighting. She learned how to get around with a walker and a scooter (nearly took out a couple tables in one restaurant in Cape May but my son learned to say “Charge!” riding with her and “fiddlesticks!” too).
We thought/hoped/prayed she’d beaten cancer. For a while we lived with the belief it was true. I didn’t visit as frequently as I probably should have. But hindsight, right? It’s always 20/20.
Finally my mother was given one month to live. Thirty brief days shortened by morphine-induced haze and heavy sleep and the struggle for lucidity as the morphine level was tweaked to try and cope with the pain of the cancer that had spread into her lungs—nodes they had accidentally missed in a scan six months earlier—and the base of her brain.
Although thirty days was too generous a number when compared to what reality finally dealt us, still my mother handled things with a grace and poise and a certain southern charm that so frequently eludes me. She had some time to make some arrangements. To come to terms with certain things and make peace with others. And we each had the chance to have one final talk with her—to have a sense of clarity and closure.
Some people never have or never take that chance to get closure—or it’s stolen from them by circumstance. So although cancer stole years from my mother—from all of us, really, in a way it also graced us with the ability to draw things to a close and make death as tidy as it can ever be.
I thought I’d find some way to neatly tie this all together by the time I was done, to illuminate some truth. To come to terms with something chewing at me—writing frequently provides me with that. I guess my point, as dull as it is, is that I hope each of you take the time to say the things that are needed while you still have a chance to. To enjoy life with friends and lovers—to live it fiercely and love courageously so you don’t have to worry about things like having closure and making your peace with death. Yeah. That’s it. If you live your life fully—like my mother seemed to feel she did –maybe the end is truly something to embrace. So there. Do that. Like I’m signing in books this go round—Live Life Fiercely and Love Courageously.
Ah, excellent. Pink's "Perfect" just came on the radio. Fitting somehow.