I found out late last week that an older woman I used to work very closely with is dying of pancreatic cancer. The message was passed on to me from a friend of a friend. I was hoping that this illnesswould be similar to the breast cancer she had a few years ago: a difficult battle but one that may be ultimately successful.
I called up M who was very truthful about her condition. "Je suis proche a mon Createur. (I am close to my Creator)," she said over the phone. She didn't sound particularly depressed or dramatic so much as honest. I've always loved M's ability to be really honest and pragmatic but at the same time warm. She was happy I called and all I could think of after our conversation was that I needed to see her.
So Saturday morning, I loaded up Sadie and a small bag into my car and drove north five hours in the driving rain. I dropped the dog off with my mom, ate some soup, and said I'd be back much later, though I didn't know when. In my opinion, the visit could have been twenty minutes (if she was really weak or if it was feeling too tramatic for both of us) or it could be several hours.
I went to M's house like I've done many times before. Her garden was still nice, her yard well kept. There were onions drying on her garage floor.
"You look the same!" she said. She hasn't seen me in a couple years and I haven't seen her, only heard from her from time to time. For the most part, she looked the same too but a lot thinner. She moved slower but still had the same mannerisms I remembered: a bounce in her step, a slight squeal to her giggle.
We talked a long time, about some old things, about some new things. Most of it was in French. And I learned a few things from my brave friend:
1) Take the time you have as a gift. So M is aware that she is going to decline to the point where she'll be spending her last days in hospice care. She thanked me now for our friendship in case the next time I see her she's not as well. While some people would take a ticking time clock as something to be depressed about, she has taken the opportunity to see friends, take care of her affairs, and appreciate life's small things, like a card from her seven year old neighbor.
2) Don't whine about what you can't do: deal with it and (occasionally push it a little). So M found out the hard way she can no longer digest dairy products, rice, or chicken. She has since modified her diet. She does miss some foods but relished telling me how she got away with eating homemade french fries and a lobster roll that she made the other day. She wants to try KFC chicken next (and if Fort Kent had a KFC within an hour drive of it, I would have got her some!).
3) Listen to your body. A modified sleep pattern is keeping M rested. When she's hungry, she eats. She's not up to going anywhere, thanks. She knows her limits and respects them.
4) Be understanding. M told me she has friends who feel they can't visit. They're afraid they'll cry. She understands and is not offended. Even facing the end of like, M doesn't expect the world to revolve around her.
5) Rely on others. When M decided she didn't want chemo or an operation (both very risky for an almost 80 year old), the hospice hooked her up with a team of nurse and a social worker. Her priest comes by and visits her. She needs other people to help her out. Life and death are two hard things to do alone.
When it was time to go, I didn't know how to. What would I say? We hugged and M said "A la prochaine, Nicole." I thought that was quite appropriate. Until next time indeed.
This whole thing made me realize how much I have to learn. But with teachers like M, maybe I'll learn sooner.