Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
The telephone call comes out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile. My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris. I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.
I’m surrounded by the chatter of other customers; the cafe almost filled to capacity. The aroma of fresh muffins, fruit toast, and homemade jam mingles with my skinny latte and Lesley’s extra strong cappuccino. However, normality dissipates as I absorb the details of the call. My body trembles. I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach and as usual Tamoxifen blesses me with a hot flush as anxiety peaks and emotions rage.
The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.
I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses. Determined not to spoil her day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…
I remember a poster I had on my wall at Burgmann College in 1971, when I lived on campus at ANU; my first year away from home. A poster long since eaten by silver fish when it was consigned to the garden shed, but there’s graphics with the same message – a sightly more colourful way of describing “left field”:
The telephone call from Canberra, from a friend from those university days. She can’t keep shock and horror from her shaky voice. A mutual friend, someone I shared a flat with in the 70s, is dying. She was the first non-family member I lived, worked and studied with – we even shared the double bed that came with the one-bedroom unit – and thought nothing of it! She’s now on borrowed time. How could this be?
A voice laced with tears explains that a late discovery of inoperable breast cancer, treated with letrozole, has metastasised to the groin and brain stem. The condition kept secret for two years, while she spent time travelling overseas and going through her bucket list. Now, she is in palliative care, her time to live numbered in weeks rather than months – or only days if she experiences a seizure or rapid deterioration of the brain.
I shared a picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973 in a recent post. Tall slim M centre stage. She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news too confronting and scary. I think back to the old house we shared, living in one of the three apartments it was divided into.
I shiver. This news means all of the women living in that house, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now M with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster? A problem for another day…
During the celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight. This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.
The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.
On my way home, I have the Serenity Prayer playing in my head as I try to put the sad news into perspective and decide on a course of action.
The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with M as she adjusts to the affects of radiotherapy and having only a limited time left. She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as say goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.
The busyness reminds me of my husband John’s last days – the irony of a busy vibrant house, comings and goings, laughter and noise, feasts and endless cups of tea and coffee yet someone is dying.
We share meals, laughs and stories. I spot photographs in an album – and snap copies with my camera.
‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say, ‘we had a lot of fun!’ M agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again. Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.
Before I leave I water the plants and pick flowers to brighten inside. M manages to negotiate back steps with some help and watches me water the garden, pointing out several special plants that came from other people’s gardens, or were received as gifts.
‘This can’t be happening,’ she whispers and I know she isn’t talking about my watering efforts. She alludes to her parents’ longevity, father ‘Digger’, dying a few years ago aged 93, her mother living into her 80s.
Her head shakes slightly, ‘I thought I had 23 years before I had to worry about all these decisions … what to do with things … ‘ Her voice trails off as her eyes drink in the beauty of flowers flourishing from the effect of an unusually cool Canberra summer that’s provided higher than average rainfall.
I help her back inside wondering if this will be the last time I will feel the weight of her arm. The last time I brush fallen hair from her shoulders as her scalp reacts to the radiotherapy.
Why is the sun still shining? The magpies trilling? Laughter drifting from nearby apartments…
I recall a speech from one of the many Aboriginal women in our friendship circle. She thanked M for all the books she bought her children over the years, the encouragement to access education. ‘One son got his PhD last year, all my girls have tertiary qualifications – thank you from the bottom of my heart.’
Others repeated similar sentiments. ‘You may not have any children of your own, but what you have done for our children means they are yours too!’
The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish she had another 23 years to sort out her life… I want the last few days to be surreal. I want someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream.
That (wo)man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men (and women) and the love of children; who has filled his(her) niche and accomplished his (her) task; who leaves the world better than he (she) found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he(she) had.
Robert Louis Stevenson