They call it “passing” now, as in “She passed.” Passed what, I wonder? She died is what happened. The worn-out cloak that was a body fell away, and her spirit, her soul, went to God and the universe. That is my belief, and it was Janet’s.
Janet was quiet, but her beliefs were strong. She believed, for example, that hell does not exist. How, she thought, would God, who is about nothing but love, allow one to be condemned forever? All of life she said was divided into love and fear, and she feared little. She loved instead. She lived large with love for all she met, whether for a moment in the store, or a lifetime in friendship.
And then she got breast cancer – a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. She told me at the time that she’d rather die than go through chemotherapy again. And while I didn’t –or couldn’t – fully understand, I trusted her word. To me, chemotherapy meant a longer life. To her, who had been through it, it meant a nightmare. She couldn’t be herself, fully alive, fully there. But the cancer went into remission and five good years followed, until it returned.
The cancer had spread to her lungs, brain, bones, breast and arm. And for whatever reason, maybe to please our daughter and me, or not to disappoint the doctors, she allowed chemotherapy again. The oncologist said that after six months of treatment she could have “years of normal life.”
She cried. But then she allowed it. Indeed, after the first month, her tumors had shrunk dramatically. Even those in her brain, where chemo doesn’t readily penetrate, had all but disappeared. She tolerated two more months of chemo, but was wasting away with no desire to eat, and then she stopped it. She said that’s it – went to the doctor’s office without me, lest I tilt her decision — and that was it. The oncologist had said, “Exercise. Eat three square meals a day,” but what he didn’t know (or say), and others often don’t, is that eating and exercise can be impossible when chemo saps all your strength and the foods you once loved taste like tin foil. And the lady loved to cook.
They put her on a maintenance drug that has virtually no side effects, and her hair began to grow back, her appetite returned, as did her love of life. She could enjoy garlic again, play with our grandchildren, cook, garden, sing in church.
The body tumors continued to shrink, but maybe for insurance cost reasons they didn’t do a late brain scan, and looking back, I’m glad.
We were living in Colorado then, having moved from the east coast ten years ago, but Janet returned to Cape Cod last summer to be with friends and wallow in salt air, steamed clams, and beaches, and when she came back she was homesick. So we moved home to the Cape. And two weeks later, after ten years away and a lovely two weeks back, she died. She had a severe headache one day and died the next. A lurking tumor, one of many, caused her brain to swell and there was no stopping it.
Janet’s faith was such that she never asked God for anything for herself. As with the lilies of the field, she always expected her needs to be met. And when the gift arrived as it always did, she accepted it with grace and thanked God. She didn’t need more life right then; she’d had that already in deep abundance. What she needed instead was a quality of life, and that she received.
When the Emergency Room physician brought in the brain scan and showed us the tumors, I asked Janet if she was worried, and she said, “No.” Worry is a form of fear, but she was at peace with dying.
Later, while she was unconscious, the surgeon said he could remove the tumor, but its location would cause great pain and give here only weeks more to live. And so I, speaking for her, said no. The fact that you can do something doesn’t mean you should. They asked about a breathing tube if she stopped breathing, or CPR if her heart stopped, and I said no. She’d already told me what she wanted, by denying chemo, and it wasn’t my place to question her.
So that night, after I’d fallen asleep beside her in the hospital, and before her daughter arrived from Colorado, she chose a moment of privacy in which to die. Her way.