“How much longer?”

This past month at the Guest House I’ve watched “A” slowly waste away from cancer. She is 6 years younger than me, only in her late 30s. Each time I see her I wonder if she’ll make it to my next shift a week later. But despite her appearance of profound illness, she keeps going; I imagine that her youth gives her more strength than, say, someone in their 70s with the same illness. Recently I sat with her while she slept.  Her sleep seemed more like deep unconsciousness, like she was immersed in unfathomable murky depths and might not be able to emerge again. She had left her tv on and the movie Titanic was showing. I’d never seen the film before and it was at the part where the ship was starting to sink. Both A and the tv were within my view, as were the many flowers, cards and framed photos from A’s friends and family. I practiced keeping my attention on all these things – the terribly ill young woman sleeping before me, the vivid evidence of the life that she was slowly leaving behind, and the dramatic movie on the tv screen depicting other types of death and sinking into the depths.

Sitting there, I noticed a quality of waiting – it seemed that A was just waiting to die and I was waiting with her. However, whenever I’ve seen her awake, and when I’ve talked with her, she evinces a quirky sense of humor and an authentic sweetness, despite her extreme lethargy (even her eyeballs are uncannily motionless). She was alive and yet I felt like we were just waiting for her body to slowly give up its stubborn life. As I was noticing this sense of waiting, and wondering when her suffering would end, she slowly began to rouse and swim up out of the depths and try to speak. Her voice and mind clearly weren’t quite functional yet and she tried several times to speak as she went in and out of heavy drowsiness. Finally she managed to say, “What time is it?” I answered and then she asked, “How much longer?” I asked how much longer till what? But she wasn’t able to respond, so I just said, “I don’t know, I don’t know how much longer it’ll be.” She sank back down into the depths.

It would be easy for me to assign specific meaning to her words like “How much longer do I have to suffer like this? When will it be over? When will I die?” But the truth is that I don’t know what she was referring to – it could have been the much less dramatic “How much longer till my dad is here?” or “How much longer till lunch?”   It would be very easy to dramatize her dying process (although actually, it doesn’t need it) and so instead I let go of trying to assign such specific meaning to her words and just tried to be with what was real: “I don’t know how much longer it’ll be, whatever it is. I don’t know.” But it did seem that the sense of waiting for something was perhaps felt by both of us in that moment.

I’m particularly identified with this woman, beyond the closeness of our ages and the fact that we both had a child at the same young age; she could have been me. Her terminal illness began with cervical cancer and 10 years ago I had begun developing cervical cancer too. I discovered this after waiting too long between Pap smears.   But I caught it in time to get the offending cells successfully removed before they really ran amok. I’m deeply grateful that I got the exam and subsequent treatment in time. If I had waited longer, perhaps that would have been me in that bed.

Last Saturday, long-time friends of A’s from out of town surprised her with a visit. I missed their first moment of reunion but heard that she was so moved, tears were streaming down her face. Her friends dressed her up in bright fanciful clothes, floppy sunhat and big heart-shaped sunglasses, and took her in her wheelchair down to the garden. They had also brought hilarious fake mustaches for them all to wear! I served as photographer while A and her loving and lively friends hammed it up for the camera sporting big black, ridiculous mustaches. Love, silliness and sadness filled the garden and my heart.

A wasn’t waiting in that moment, she was living.

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