One of the last times I visited my Grandmother at the Care Center where she lived, staff members wheeled her hall-mate out on a gurney.
“We all come here to die,” my Grandmother said matter-of-factly after her sheet-covered neighbor passed from view.
She was right: residents in her wing of the Care Center weren’t waiting to get better or younger or to move somewhere else. This building was their last stop in this life. She and her neighbors had come there to die.
Words failed me at that moment, as they often do when we come face-to-face with the limits of our existence. I held her hand as her words about death lingered in the space between us. The conversation gradually picked up again and we talked about goings on of various members of our extended family. Invariably Grandma’s information was more up-to-date than mine on cousins and great aunts and family friends. Even as the world she inhabited narrowed, her sharp mind and wit enabled strong connections to a much wider world beyond her tiny room. It was true that she longed for death. But even as the end drew very near, Grandma died like she was living.
In December my Grandmother passed away, a month shy of her ninety-fifth birthday. On her birthday weekend in January, her entire family—joined by many friends—gathered to celebrate her life. At the memorial service, the eldest of the nineteen great grandchildren, Linnea Peterson, who I’m also proud to claim as my daughter, offered a tribute to her Great Grandmother. This is what she said:
As the oldest of the great-grandchildren, I felt called to give a tribute to Great-Grandma Swanee from a great-grandchild’s perspective. I’m going to structure what I say around a hymn that I’ve learned and come to love at Tverberg reunions, one that I think Great-Grandma particularly embodied. It’s called Borning Cry. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s is a hymn about a life lived in God’s word and promise, from the perspective of an onlooker. The onlooker is God, but it took me several years of singing the hymn to realize that. Before I figured that out, I often imagined the onlooker as a parent, a grandparent, some sort of older relative. With Great-Grandma’s deep investment in all of our lives of faith, she fit the image I had of this onlooker. Let me show you how.
The hymn begins,
I was there to hear your borning cry
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized
To see your life unfold.
I have stage IV breast cancer and I blog about it. But I’m not the only one—with the disease or with a blog. Lisa Adams, metastatic breast cancer patient and blogger with a national profile, recently became a touchstone for national debate about the use of social media in publicly chronicling a serious illness. In early January, two journalists, one at the New York Times and one at the Guardian, wrote pieces critical of some of Adams’ treatment choices as well as the way she lets readers into her life with cancer via blogs and tweets. Outrage over Bill and Emma Kellers’ pieces (who happen to be married) was swift and fierce, not just for the critical questions they raise about Adams’ choices but for inaccuracies in important details (like getting the number of Adams’ children wrong, or how long she’d been living with metastatic breast cancer) and in including quotes from private correspondence with Adams without permission, prompting the newspapers’ opinion editors to publish pieces alternately apologizing for and defending the journalists (if you want to read more, here’s one place to start: The Guardian website).
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Bill Keller’s “Heroic Measures” column is his not-so-subtle suggestion that Adams should consider going more quietly into that dark night rather than aggressively treating the metastasizing cancer. In weighing the alternatives, he contrasts the treatment regiment of Adams to his own father-in-law’s “unplugged” death from cancer in Britain last year. Here Keller is wading into much-larger debates about not just how the U.S. apportions its medical dollars but how and when those of us with advanced-stage cancer (and other really bad conditions) should embrace the inevitability of death. I’m keenly aware of these debates, as they often play out in my own head. When I learn “my” cancer has metastasized from the bones to the liver or the lungs, how much aggressive treatment will I opt for? How are we supposed to decide when enough’s enough?
When I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, I started preparing to die. Granted, we should all “live like we’re dying” as singer Kris Allen reminds us, but an aggressive diagnosis ups the urgency on doing just that. I went back to teaching even though I could barely stand up because I wanted to be in the classroom one last time. I stopped buying new clothes because I didn’t think I’d have much time to wear them. I insisted on a summer vacation even though my stamina was shaky because I thought that would be the last one I’d take with the family. My husband and I secured burial plots. There didn’t seem to be much time, and I was intentional in my preparations for the end.
Then I went into remission. Having already resigned from my life, I gradually let myself believe that there could be another semester in the classroom, that if I bought new clothes I’d have some time to wear them, that I might get to experience another family vacation. What an amazing turn of events. Thank God, thank the doctors, thank the world for allowing me more time.
Last summer, when Amma was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer, my elder daughter wrote this tribute:
First there were butterfly crackers and squares of cheese at the kitchen table. Amma spoke Tamil and I didn’t understand, but I knew she got out the crackers and that she cut the squares of cheddar for me. I liked adults who did this. I was four, and I liked Amma.
Next there were nightgowns at Christmas – beautiful and lacy – fresh off Amma’s sewing machine. “Thank you,” I said when my parents nudged me, and I hugged her, feeling her stiff, silky sari under my little hands. It was so unlike what my mother and aunts wore, but it felt right on her, because she was Amma.
Later, there were dresses and stockings, sewn and knitted, even as I started to notice Amma’s bony brown hands and wondered, Should they still be sewing?