Dying as we live

Have you ever formed a relationship with someone who was so seemingly unlike you that the relationship that bloomed and grew and became so important to you originally seemed absolutely unlikely?  Have you ever become friends so quickly with someone who seemed so different from you on a basic level, but then, once you’d had a couple of conversations, you begin to wonder where they had been all your life and lament the fact that your paths didn’t cross sooner?   Me too.  This is the story of that relationship.

We met nearly 6 years ago.  E was a cancer patient here at the centre, and had decided she also wanted to volunteer her time.  She had been diagnosed in Indonesia, where she and her partner had been working.  Both engineers, they worked on international infrastructure projects all over the world.  Her treatment had gone well, but they decided to return to Canada and put down some roots briefly until this cancer business was cleared up.  Right away I was intrigued because this wasn’t a young, fresh out of university couple, looking for adventure, no.  E and her partner were in their late 50s/early 60s and this nomadic life – moving every couple of years from Angola to Ethiopia to Indonesia to wherever the projects took them – was the life they’d chosen, and it suited them completely.  When most couples their age were retiring to Florida or going on bus tours of safe European countries in matching windbreakers, they were vacationing by roughing it in places like Ecuador.  I was fascinated.

As we got to know each other better, we found so many things in common – literature, art, politics – and yet so many things that were different.  Our ages, for example.  She had fled Czechoslovakia as a young woman in 1968 when the Communists took over.  I was born in 1967 and have lived in Canada my whole, safe, unconquered life.  Although she spoke several languages, English was not one of them, so when she came to Canada she took a job as a waitress in a downtown restaurant to learn English.

Eventually she was hired as an engineer for the city – the very first woman ever hired for that position by City Hall.  A trailblazer, you might say, although that’s not something she would ever say, even though the local paper did a write-up on her achievements back in the day, even though I tried to convince her. 

About 2 years after her initial diagnosis, the cancer came back.  Of course.  Once again, she endured the various side effects of the chemotherapy.  She did most of her volunteer shifts, but some weeks she felt too awful.  Understandably.  On the days that she was able to come in, we did a lot more talking than working, and I have never regretted that.  In a lot of ways as she became sicker, we became closer, revealing more of our personal stories and history to each other.  Almost like we knew we were running out of time.

The next recurrence came more quickly – only a few months later.  There were some clinical trial attempts and another brief remission.  Then, ultimately the treatment was stopped.  It wasn’t working.  Her visits to me became less frequent.  Sometimes I would see her in the hallways as she made her way to one appointment or another.  Always we chatted about things other than her cancer: our frustration with Canada’s current government, the strange Hungarian novel I had read and passed along to her and what we both loved about it, what my kids were up to, our plans for the summer which included a trip to the UK.

I called her a few days before we left for London to let her know I was thinking about her, and that I’d miss her.  By this point the cancer was in her lungs and breathing was difficult.  I told her I’d see her for a visit when we got back, and to rest up because our next big vacation was going to involve her – I had told her a few years ago that I wanted to go to the Czech Republic and I wanted her for our tour and translation guide.  She laughed.

The last contact I had was via email.  I had sent her the link to our family’s travel blog, and she replied saying what a great idea that was, and “Have a lot of fun.”

About a week after I returned to work, her partner came in to the library to tell me that she had died a few days before.  To say I was gutted is probably an understatement, even though I had known I’d probably not see her again, that there would be no guided tour of Prague. 

Earlier in the spring I had had to attend a funeral of a friend – also a cancer patient – and E and I had talked about it.  She said “Well you know, when I die, there will be nothing.”  And I said that I had suspected, which was the truth.  Knowing her, I said I couldn’t picture a service with flowers and photos and all the funereal trappings.  Her level of practicality was unprecedented, just one of the many things I admired about the woman.  So I said “Is it ok if I knock back a few glasses of wine in a toast to your memory, though?”  And she said that would be fine.  So I did.  Ok, more than a few, if I’m being totally honest.

When she told me “when I die there will be nothing” I understood, but I think I am among the few that did.  So many others – volunteers, other patients have come to me: “Can you believe there’s no funeral, isn’t that absurd?” “It wasn’t in the paper, I didn’t see it in the paper!” “Well, I can’t believe there’s just nothing, there has to be something!”  And I felt a little smug in my knowledge that I knew her well enough to know why and how…and yes, I can believe there was no funeral.

When we have a choice in how we are going to die, chances are we are going to choose to die as we chose to live.  If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.  How many times have you said to friends or family “Well, let me tell you, when I die it’s just going to be one big piss-up for everyone after I’m gone!”  Or “I think I’d like something quiet, maybe have so-and-so play a song or two…”  Right?  Even when death seems years off, people have ideas as to how they want to die, how they want to be remembered.  And, if you really look at these seemingly off-the-cuff statements about a New Orleans-style funeral, or please will someone be sure to hire a piper, chances are these requests will be very much in line with the person’s personality, in line with the way they currently live their life. 

E died quietly at home, with her partner close by, and possibly a nurse, but very likely no one else.  This is also how she lived.  Quietly, with purpose; privately and without fancy arrangements.  So no, it’s not surprising that there was nothing planned.  It’s up to us, left behind, to find a way to remember.

It’s been almost a month now, and I miss her presence here.  I miss our time together, I miss how when she arrived for her shift, it was my cue to make a cup of tea and settle in for a good long chat.  I can’t count the number of times I said to her “You know, I should be writing all this down, I should be taking notes for your biography” and she would laugh, scoffing, as if there was nothing to write about, who was she but just another individual, doing nothing particularly special.  Of course I never did write things down, but I still might.  Stories she told me, circumstances that led to her arrival in Canada all those years ago, events that were important to her.  Sort of an unauthorized (and unpublished) biography, I guess you could say.

I realize this is a bit on the heavy side for my first real blog post in months, but if you know me in real life, you’ve probably heard me talk about E before, and you’ll know the influence she had on me, how much she inspired me.  As I’ve said to friends many times, “When I grow up I want to be a 65-year old Czech woman.  End of story.”

Not a bad thing to aspire to at all, if you ask me.

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