Published on February 4th, 2014 | by Katy Evans2
For World Cancer Day: death in our mean universe
At the close of 2009, I lost my best friend to cancer. It is the defining experience of the last few years of my life. February 4 is World Cancer Day. And like every day, I will remember and honor Janice.
What do you do when you’ve met death? When she’s crept inside and sunk in her teeth and curled up to gnaw? What happens when you can point to the decay? When you don’t simply move about in your day-to-day – feeling distinctly mortal but not able to distinguish whether it will be a car or a cliff or a tumor or a gun that will do you in – but instead you know and recognize your end? What happens when you know at least that, but you still can’t and won’t know anything more?
No matter how I think about it, I get tangled in and embarrassed by my thoughts; language falters and collapses into whining when I think on how it’s all so unfair and tragic and incomprehensible.
I think about death and think about how wrong I am about death. The objective realist in me tries to reason with my guts and my every screaming instinct that declares death evil. No, she says, death isn’t cheating us of all we love and all we are. It is all we love and all we are. How can I hate the end and be delighted at the beginning when it happens to every single thing, every human, every Thing? Everything ends, she says. And my guts tell her she will always be wrong, no matter how cold and rigid and unknowable this truth is.
Death, the promise fulfilled; defining the beginning, middle, and end; death, the contrast and the oath keeper; death, the end of potential, the beginning of the unknowable. And I rage, just as I am supposed to, at the dying of the light.
Instead of wrestling, shouldn’t I know and be comforted by the fact that the one who is being taken from me has built a life that would impact me in such way? Would impact so many? A person whose life is defined by joy and compassion and love and kindness and beauty? It is a life defined by depth and intelligence and talent and family and love and empathy and really, could someone ask to be blessed to know more?
And how can I be so selfish to now make this experience about myself when she is the one leaving? How do you facilitate a graceful, love-filled exit and not be creepy, shitty, and self-serving about it? I suppose the best choice would be action—channeling the sorrow and panic into good works. But when it is just one who is leaving, the tragedy doesn’t reach far enough. Suddenly there isn’t room for everyone to always be doing things. Sometimes you can only sit or run quietly or loudly with your thoughts.
Perhaps simply sorrow for the looming utter absence of a human of great quality is allowable. Maybe it is just acceptable, and not utterly selfish, to be sad to lose someone so precious.
The dark came quick this year. Janice died, the flowers died, the leaves fell and the sun toddled away. Now I wander, trekking through quiet, dirty neighborhoods in the dusk and in the dawn and I don’t think about my dead and hurt and distant friends. Instead I insulate with information that puts no demands on my current experience. It pours into my head through green headphones, baptizing me in distraction.
I am very alone and when suddenly, I do not feel alone, I feel hysterical. The love of the living makes me feel too mortal. I can’t talk about Janice; I can’t think longer than that brief length of time that it takes for the slender stabbing pain to run me through whenever she comes to mind. I feel the blade slide in and out and I think about something else; anything else. Like the holidays, like cat shit, like finding a new job, like growing my hair out, like planning every second of my week, like shopping, like cookies.
And this, my favorite time of the year is bearing down on me and I am dreading it. I can’t cry anymore because all crying does is make my eyes itch. I have no means to process the end of my favorite friendship, of my favorite friend, and I don’t understand mourning because with every part of me, I feel that mourning is a skill, an ability, and I have no teacher, no talent for it, and no help.
I have spent a lot of time surrounded by love and comfort; I am sure it helped on some level but for the most part, compulsions pervade, encouraging me to spend significant time motionless and alone. This all sounds way worse than I think it actually is.
Forced change has left me torn: do I grab the momentum and continue changing or do I somehow capture and hoard stasis? Instead of deciding, I attempt both simultaneously. Gathering this conflict has become a discipline, in allowing myself to be the battleground for a progressive, depressive duel I’m forced to think.
Processing loss is hard – and something that never occurred to me to expect, which I guess is silly. A control freak and a manipulator, I just never before considered that relationships could be ripped from me by forces out of my control. And now I have stupid dreams where I lose and break things; and in real life I lose and break and ruin things. Grief and loss are embarrassing for me. I’ve been made a fool, clumsy, and out of control. My universe has become mean.
It is a fat Tuesday, sun spilling through glass, birds fighting, somersaulting, caterwauling in the trees of my sedate urban forest. I am grinding my creative ability into dust and wishing for gods. I am answered by flowering quince and Professor Longhair and count myself lucky. It is not my custom to greet the spring with joy but this year, as I see age in my hair, on my hips, in old sprains that resist healing, I smile with the sun and the shock of crocuses and snowdrops. For the first time, this emergence means something new to me.
Until this past fall, I had spent my conscious moments building my life, my family, my loves, and my home, making them strong and safe. I worked and worked at a deep and prideful labor and my eyes were bright. But then the dark months were heralded by dark events, by attack and dismay and grief and try as I might to deny it as I snatch at my fleeting past self, I am harshly changed.
Death came legion as summer faded, a quiet, utter invading plague. She pressed upon my world, flanked by a waiting, terrible darkness, and then she sank, spreading infection. I pretended I didn’t know her, but she could not be denied. She shared the end with me and with sure, relentless hands she stole my love and my work, bearing it away to a place where I had never, until now, thought to go.
I do not want to scar or heal or cover the emptiness I hold. My friends are dead but all we built together remains with me. Our constructions cling precariously to our new, ragged, wounded void and crave sanction.
Now arrives this infant spring and the rolling world cradles its brilliant new flowers, its riotous birds, and a frantic, frolicking three-legged puppy. These vital glowing lives do not shield or distract me from the aching gaps in my fractured family – instead they circle, exposing this place where once my loved ones stood and danced and laughed and built just as industriously as I had.
So now I begin a new work: I construct my rite of spring looking to flowers, dogs, mud, clouds, and birds to find my way to befriend the dead. I search for my way to live in death.
At this time last year, I turned 29. On my birthday, my best friend Janice invited my family and me to celebrate at her house. I can’t remember if I knew she had cancer then. I think I did because I think she had had her first surgery. But I could be wrong. I wish I could remember but I am also a little bit glad I can’t.
Janice and her husband made us delicious fresh apple juice and whiskey cocktails, Janice gave me handmade gifts. We concluded the evening with dinner down the street at a neighborhood pub. It was one of my favorite birthdays, full of family, love, fun, and silliness.
Last August Janice turned 30. She had a big birthday with friends and family from all over the country there to celebrate. She had just gotten chickens and one of the party games was to help her name them. I still hadn’t allowed myself to accept that Janice was dying. I knew she was bald from the chemo under her cheeky blonde wig but she just looked so beautiful, smiling and hugging everyone, being a generous hostess, even having a little drink, showing her grace as we all drank liberally, maybe a little desperately.
I remember seeing her at one point, standing back, watching us. I know she was seeing all that would go on without her. I wish I had been able to talk to her about it but I never crossed that line. I never really let myself believe she would die until after that night.
I remember talking to her older sister, both of us a little wild eyed from champagne and inexorable tragedy. She told me she couldn’t remember the last time she had been that drunk; that she didn’t know what else to do. It was a party inspired and powered by love but underneath all the affection there was panic, an internal gnashing of teeth, a psychic, certain wail of mourning soon to descend.
The next morning, I sat outside with Janice, her husband, sister, and my boyfriend. It was a shining summer day, we ate breakfast leisurely, cleaned up a bit of party debris and talked. I remember telling Janice she was my favorite person. I remember that as we sat and admired the adolescent chickens, suddenly Janice got upset – the only time I saw her get upset in her illness – because the chickens couldn’t move into their coop right away and they would have to leave that day.
That was the only time I saw her allow herself to feel fear about not being able to see a living thing she cared about again. I think it surprised her that she reacted that way to the chickens. We laughed it off. In hindsight, I know this was the only time, in front of me, that she betrayed even the iceberg tip of her struggle with the end of her life.
Janice died the following month. I visited her on her last day. She couldn’t speak or breathe well. Her lungs were filling up with fluid and there was nothing anyone could do for her anymore other than ease some of the pain – she was slowly drowning but was clinging to all her strength to stay alive to say goodbye to her sister who was traveling from out of state to see her.
I remember walking into Janice’s quaint, well-appointed house. Hospice had set her up in the living room so that she could die at home. The stark change in her appearance from just a month before was a shock. Janice looked like someone dying; her skin was near blue, almost translucent, dark circles under her eyes, no wig to hide her bald head. Yet she radiated such beauty, such love. I was startled to immediate tears but I sat beside her, stroking her arm, telling her how much I loved her. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t acknowledge that she comprehended what we said to her though I will forever believe that she knew.
We didn’t stay long. Janice’s family surrounded and supported her and I couldn’t really take seeing her in agony. That was the last time I saw Janice alive.
Now, a few days after my thirtieth birthday and a day before my big birthday party, I realize that of course my apprehension toward the impending celebration is connected to my loss. I wish with all my heart that Janice could be here now to celebrate with me. We have celebrated our birthdays together since 1992. This past year, Thanksgiving and Christmas were difficult but I had hosting duties to distract me from sadness – at my party tomorrow I will have no such role. I know I am going to have a fantastic time; I’m already flattered and excited at how much effort my friends have put into this party and I know it’s going to be fun. I just miss Janice.
I don’t write about Janice anymore. Or death, or love, or struggle. Instead I write about my hometown, my community, music, art, education, conservation. And I write every day.
For the past three years I have thought about Janice every day. I like to keep things she made with me so I can interact with her memory. I talk to her sometimes when I’m alone. I wear her jewelry, keep my phone cords and headphones in a little bag she made me. I shielded my eyes from Belizean sun with sunglasses that were once hers. I get spasms of panic if I think I have lost something she gave me.
I don’t cry every day for missing my friend – but I do cry at events where love is particularly strong, where I am surrounded by friends, where I’ve have a few drinks. And my tears aren’t nostalgic; they never mist out of me in dribbles of fond sentimentality, like maybe I miss those I have lost but now, I’m happy to be enveloped by the living and the loving. No, instead they are a potent mixture of intimacy and dread, highlighted by alcohol and mortality.
Everyone around me is alive and vital and those dark aging wounds are forever close and real. These will always be Janice’s moments too – I would have shared them with her if she was still here and the lack of her will forever be a wrongness in my life.
So is that ok? I don’t think it matters. I’m not trying to find a way to be ok with a world with no Janice and it continues to impact the way I love and connect with everyone. I had never thought to guard against loss before and now I regularly, sometimes viciously do. No one had ever told me I seemed lonely until after I lost Janice. I guess now I am a lonely person; a lonely person who is often very happy and often very sad.