Years of mentoring parents-to-be in childbirth classes has made it obvious that there is a veil between what we think we are preparing for and what actually happens in the liminal spaces between this and that. Between preparing to do the work, and actually having to crawl on our knees in the muck through a trial greater than we imagined. We guess we know what it will mean to shift from one kind of life to another, how we will be strong and capable; but in the end, it is only a trick of the mind, giving us the courage to begin hard things before we’ve any idea at all just how hard they will be or what the cost or how it will change us.
Birth and death are two sides of the same coin, aren’t they? They even sometimes, heartbreakingly, happen at the same time, but that isn’t what this story is about. Birth and Death. One brings a new life in, shattering the world around itself to make space for a new beginning, new relationships, new responsibilities, new hopes and dreams and fears. The other takes a life out, shattering the world around it with an ending, a void, intangible memories, and a struggle for those still living to somehow continue on in a world that seems nothing like it was before. In both cases, imagining what the shattering might be like is always far removed from the experience of having the world come undone and be made new.
I met my friend Heather in 2007 when she edited and published the first essay I ever submitted anywhere, when I was still recovering from the shock of becoming a parent myself. Her magazine, Get Born, set the stage for the kind of mother I was to become. The uncensored voice of motherhood. Permission to be just the kind of mother that felt best to me, rather than scraping myself raw against an idealized mold of motherhood. My payment for the essay was a subscription and 5 copies of the issue my essay was published in. Since we lived within driving distance of one another, she offered to meet me for coffee to give me the mags. She brought her adorable, round-cheeked 2-year-old along with her, the youngest of her four daughters. Even though I was reserved and introverted, I quickly learned that it was impossible to be reserved around Heather. She could draw anything out of anyone, and gave as much in return.
A couple of months later, I volunteered to help out a bit with the magazine. I didn’t know what I could do or offer, but I had recently left my job and I needed something. I started going to planning meetings.
A couple of months after that, Heather told us she was going in for a biopsy of a lump in her breast. I knew it would be fine because Heather was so full of life – she couldn’t possibly have…
Everywhere. The CT showed it was not only in her breast, but also in practically every bone in her body. Stage 4. She was 34 years old.
And here is where I faced a choice. Heather and I were acquaintances, bordering on friends, but not attached yet. We all have our limits, our needs for self-preservation, and it would have been okay if I had backed off then. Some did, and I don’t fault them for it. It wouldn’t have been kind, but it would have been okay. Because when someone you barely know has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, you know that the choice to become close with that person – to love that person – is one that will also come at a great cost, one you only think you can understand.
It turns out that Heather responded immediately and well to chemotherapy, and surgery, and to long-term, targeted chemo drugs that changed her life in countless, immeasurable ways, but also meant she had a life. Eventually they could find no evidence of cancer anywhere in her body. It was under control with the medications she was on, and she thrived for years on that regimen. The time it did come back, a quick change in medications swept it away again just as suddenly. Life was harder, but Heather took the challenge to live more authentically, to honor her truth, and to wrap herself up in her love for her daughters. She inspired people constantly with her audacity to challenge social norms, to be what she wanted to be – herself, and she encouraged everyone else to do the same.
And then just about a year ago, it came back again, this time in her lung – an infection, they thought. But it wasn’t an infection, it was cancer. New drugs proved ineffective over and over and over.
When I made my choice in 2008 to show up for a sick friend, I didn’t know it would begin 6 years of friendship with one of the most tenacious, funny, full-of-life people I have ever met. I didn’t know that friendship would become sisterhood. I didn’t know that she would make her mark on my family’s lives in indelible ink. That we would love deeply, carry each other when it was hard (which was often), love each other’s children, and be heartbroken over misunderstandings, only to come back together again because I needed her and she needed me. I knew she would leave sooner or later, but I didn’t know how she would alter the course of my life before she left. Her death was delayed after all, but it came far sooner and more rapidly in the end than was fair or reasonable.
Some terminally ill people make peace with dying, but Heather had made peace with fighting, no matter the toll or cost to herself because there is no making peace with leaving your children. If there was any chance for her to live a little longer, to be alive for them one more day, she was ready to take it. Her last days, even in pain and short of breath, she continued to joke, to make personal connections with her nurses, to rise to the occasion of greeting every person who walked in her room, to bring people together in the way she always had. The last words she spoke out loud to me were “Say hi to your grandparents for me.” Always thinking of others.
In these last days leading up to her death, when the journey down into the dark unknown had already begun, and those of us close by all knew what the outcome was likely to be, we understood we were preparing for her passing. But there is no understanding of what a death will be like until it has happened, and now we are fumbling around the fractures where a person used to be. Even when there is time to get ready for someone to die, no preparation will ever be good enough. There is a fundamental difference between knowing that the rending is coming and actually feeling the Dark Queen snare you on her hook and hang you up.
Because of the person Heather was, dozens, maybe hundreds of people are caught up in a newly shattered world, a world today that seems nothing like it was before. Heather had more best-friends than anyone could count, and I am one among many for her. She meant something different for each of us, although she challenged us all to face our assumptions about who we thought we should be. For me, she was one among few – held within the small circle of this introvert’s dearest loves. Sitting here among the wreckage, as broken as everything seems now, I am sure that every moment with her was worth the cost. In the days to come we all who remain will surround her daughters with the bits of Heather’s light that we each carry, the legacy she has left behind. And the world will rearrange itself again into something new that none of us can quite imagine yet – a world where Heather is everywhere and nowhere at all.