Death, the death of others, has never really bothered me. My first experience with death was my grandmother’s. She was someone I saw nearly every day. I was 5, almost 6, and it was 8 days after my baby brother was born. She only met him once while he was still in the hospital, and was killed in a head on car accident a few days later. I remember being sad, but more than anything being concerned about my dad’s sadness. It broke my heart to watch him hurt and grieve his mother’s abrupt death. But even then, it didn’t scare me. It just seemed like a thing that happened.
When I was in school no one died. I went to a small school, and the last death of a student happened the year before I entered kindergarten, the next happed 14 years later, the year after I graduated.
Then I went into nursing. I still vividly remember the first death I encountered as a nurse’s assistant in a nursing home, Ruth’s death. But deaths in the nursing home were often a sweet release of a soul trapped in a broken body. They were often blessings.
I lost elderly aunts and uncles. I graduated from nursing school and experienced it from the perspective of a nurse in a hospital. I saw traumatic deaths. Tragic, tragic unexpected deaths. Slow, hospice-type deaths. Stillbirths…SIDS…
I cried. I got mad. But in the end, we all die. And I never really, really took it personally.
Then 10 months ago I took a position in oncology. My opinion of cancer has generally been a distant one. The only close cancer death was my very good friend’s mother when I was 10, but she handled it with such grace that I sometimes forgot her mother had died. And then she herself battled lymphoma, but she crushed it, like it was no big thing. So it was no big thing. I didn’t really understand cancer… I mean, I got the pathophysiologic meaning of cancer, but I did not get what it did to people’s actual lives. And even in starting my new position providing care for these patients, I still didn’t get it. I knew that these metastatic cancer patients would die. And it would be sad. But I didn’t really get it.
And then, I met my first patient born in the same decade as myself. It felt as though I was punched in the stomach. I suddenly felt my mortality deeply. I developed a new sense of anxiety that I had not ever possessed. It was my mortality talking.
You see, cancer happens to children, yes. And “old” people, yes. But when you are 20 or 30-something you are busy. Busy getting educated, planning, married, procreating, moving, planning some more. You are worried about student loans and mortgages and car seat safety profiles. Consumed by your children’s well-beings, maybe even your parents’ well-beings, but you trust your body will carry on at status quo until you babies grow up and graduate and you have time for cancer. It is a time when your boobs are for breastfeeding. Your uterus for baking babies. And your everything else needs to just do its damn job. Like digest chocolate and process caffeine and get you through each day.
But it’s not always so. Even at 30-something your body can betray you. Your DNA can mess up, your cells can break, and those broken cells can spread around and try to kill you. Likely, you won’t know it’s happening. You’ll be tired because your life makes you tired. And you’ll lose weight and cheer because, well, thank God it’s a miracle. Except then there’s a weird symptom or sign. A doctor appointment. And a complete workup. And panicking. Suddenly you are smacked in the face with your mortality.
I have spent sooooo much time ponding my mortality since I saw the 1980’s-born patient. The patient with little children. And a spouse that is trying to keep their shit together, but if you look them in the eyes, they are freaking out. They are bartering with God. They are trying not to imagine life without the person they love, the person they picked and planned a life with, but simultaneously planning how the hell they are going to raise those precious babies without one of their parents there.
I wonder which is worse… having metastatic cancer, or being married to it? Dying or being left behind? I have no idea. I don’t want to know.
That patient opened my eyes to what was really happening in front of me to all of my patients. The young, the older. The prepared and those getting through each day in a veil of denial. We are all dying. Some of us very, very insidiously. Some of us glaringly obviously. Some of us tragically fast. Each body’s life ends in death. I have faith about heaven… but I have small babies, and my fear of death right now is massive. The fear of my husband’s death is massive. I don’t want to leave them without a mommy or a daddy… at least not until they are capable adults. And worse yet, I cannot fathom either of them leaving us. But it could happen. It does happen… every single day… to someone else.
I’m sorry for such a somber post. But if you kept reading until the end, please take a moment to consider your life in all of its glory. Tell people you love them, forgive people who have wronged you and apologize to those you’ve wronged. Life is short, sometimes so very short. And you will die. And I will die. But I want to go knowing I’ve done all I can in this life. And I want the same for you.