Over the last half year, I have had plenty of time to reflect on the metaphors we use when people become seriously ill. We use words of violence and battles and courage – we say that someone met the challenge of cancer bravely or that they fought hard, and when they become ill we speak of beating it, of not giving up, of winning, and if they live we call them survivors, or in their obituaries we say things about whether or not their fight was long.
A few months ago, just a very few weeks after my mother died, my Aunt Susan was diagnosed with a vicious cancer. Susan was determined to do all that she could to stay with us, but like my mother and her husband Tupper before her, the disease wasn’t a force you could reckon with. It was unconcerned with her strength of character, her determination, or her will. This past weekend, despite how much she wanted more, despite how long she cared to live, despite the fact that those who loved her desperately wanted to keep her, and despite that fact that losing so many people in a family in this amount of time is just plain awful, Susan died.
Susan and my mum cared for Tupper together when he was ill, and Susan was with us here when my mum was forced out the door, and I have spent the last few months driving back and forth to Ottawa, trying to repay the debt of care I owed her, and trying to be my mother, though I know I failed. My mum loved Susan desperately, they were the very best of friends, and many times as I pulled into the hospital parking lot, I thought to myself that if there was any mercy in what was happening, it was that my mum didn’t have to do it.
I know this is the part where I am supposed to say that Susan fought bravely, or something else that is to tell you about her struggle, but I am not going to.
In skipping this tradition, I don’t want to imply that she wasn’t strong, or that she didn’t try or that there was (ever) a challenge that Susan wouldn’t take on. She was a strong person, and brave, and there for Tupp and Mum and it’s all of that – that’s why I can’t say there was a fight. I just won’t. I’m sure it will be different for many of you, and you can use the language and words that resonate for yourselves, and your families, if it helps you to battle with cancer or illness, if that reassures you or gives you strength, have at it. Take all you need with my blessing and more – but please don’t say it to me, because today our family is on the other side.
If we say there was a fight, then we are saying Susan lost it, as did my Mum, and Tupp, and I cannot bear to have them thought of as losers who weren’t strong enough, people who didn’t persevere, or tragic figures who didn’t win a battle. You didn’t know them, they weren’t like that. They didn’t want to go, and they would never have left us like this if they didn’t have to.
Susan didn’t lose a fight – the magic number of days she was somehow allotted had elapsed, and it wouldn’t have mattered if she had cowered in a corner and refused to go on, there was a sentence in the disease, and there was no battle for her to wage.
I am not a person who believes in heaven, or any afterlife at all. I tried to be, after my Mum died. I tried to believe that she was going on somewhere, happy and whole – it is a wonderful idea that I wish I could get behind, and I so see the obvious comfort in it, but I lack whatever it is that lets you make the leap. I tried desperately to believe that I would someday see her again, but I can’t. While I struggled, Susan did not. She believed that there was a time after this, a time or a place where people are reunited with the ones that they love, and although she was loathe to go, in her heart she felt that leaving this place could mean arriving somewhere else, and I was happy to support that belief. I hope she is right, or that maybe something different is true for everyone and maybe in believing, Susan made it true for herself.
Today it is my most fond wish that somewhere, right this minute, Susan, Tupp and Mum are on a beach, the Saturday crossword held down with a rock. Mum is walking along the waves, Tupp is swimming in the sea, and Susan is sitting in the shade watching them both, so relieved and peaceful, and happy to have them back again.
I hope so, because I really miss them all. Bon voyage Susan. We love you.Thanks for everything.