This blog post was written to honor the end of my dear friend's journey, from the perspective of a loved one who traveled alongside her. I hope that this glimpse into our final days together can provide others in a similar situation, and their loved ones, with a sense of the beauty and dignity that can be present, even in the midst of the struggle. Wherever possible, I have tried to empower her voice and use the terms that she used to describe her journey, though I recognize that the inclusion of some terms and details may be triggering for others. Accordingly, please take good care of yourself and exercise caution when deciding whether to read it. Metavivor was an organization that was very important to my friend, and so it was important to me to tell her story here. – Amanda
THE 1ST TRIP
“How the hell do you pack for something like this? I mean, I just put a deck of cards in my suitcase. WTF.”
This is the text message I sent to our other two best friends the night before I came to see you for the last time. I sat on the floor of my closet trying to wrap my head around how we got here and what was happening.
It’s been almost seven years since you fought hard and beat breast cancer in your early 30s. In your July 24, 2012 blog post, you wrote:
“Just like before every boxing match, the fighters weigh in. It paints a clear picture of what the opponent should expect; prepare them both for a ‘clean fight.’ Having cancer as my opponent is not a clean fight. Cancer fights dirty; below the belt. It's not a fair fight.”
But, you did it. Despite resurgences of cancer cells here and there over the years that you managed with diligent screening and medication, you filled your life with love, laughter, travel, and connection. You LIVED. Which is precisely what you said you’d do back then:
“I'll be damned if I let this S.O.B. take over my life. I've got a lot more living left to do, people to see, places to go, experiences to have. Although I have no idea what is going on inside my body, I control what I can - my attitude, my outlook, my feelings, and of course, my wardrobe…Chemo Chic, I call it.”
Three months ago, you took your chic, sassy self on the trip of a lifetime to the Philippines, where you added a whole new group of people to the long list of folks who loved you the moment they met you. But, when you returned, you learned that the cancer had as well, and with a metastasized vengeance. This time, not only was it not going to be a fair fight, it was going to be an impossible fight.
And so, there I was, a couple weeks later, trying to pack for what we both knew was probably going to be our last adventure together. It was our 39th birthday weekend. I am exactly one day older than you and what fun we’ve had over the years celebrating our birthdays together. How fitting that we got to spend your last birthday together. And, in the week prior, you and the love of your life decided to get married; so, there was to be a wedding, too! As I stood there at a loss for what to put in the suitcase, I was overwhelmed with a wave of gratitude. I didn’t know what the next three days were going to look like or what I “needed,” but I was just so profoundly grateful to be headed your way.
Hours later, I was by your bedside, along with our other two best friends. Your family had prepared us for how different you looked, as your liver was failing and there was lots of fluid retention. It didn’t phase me, though; your smile was as radiant as ever and you filled the room with warmth and light as you always did. That weekend was a blur of the highest highs, sprinkled with moments of sadness, longing, and even desperation. These are the images that will be forever imprinted in my memory.
The way you studied every detail of the cards my kids made for you, like they were the most beautiful works of art you had ever seen.
How you held my hand or made sure we were physically touching in some way during all the moments you were awake and I was nearby. You have always had a way of unabashedly showing your affection for others, by casually linking arms or gently twirling a lock of hair.
The hours I spent watching you sort through medical insurance paperwork and trying to submit healthcare reimbursement claims online, simultaneously patient and frantic. Until you were too fatigued to continue. Until I got too angry and took over for you. I could NOT believe this is how you were having to spend your precious, numbered days.
The laughter and tears that flowed the night before your wedding, watching your beloved nieces perform a special bachelorette party concert for you, and helping you write your vows. I felt my breath escape my body when you practiced that one line for your sweetheart, “You held my hand through chemo, but you were my treatment.”
How each of your brothers tenderly played their roles in your care - I’ve never seen someone put compression socks on with such precision! How your sister-in-law found jobs for each of us, making us feel an important part of your team. How your mom would stand in your doorway, gazing at you. How your young nieces took to me (or more likely, that deck of cards I had brought with me!) and played games with me for hours, during your naps. And, how your husband so generously opened your home to all of us, allowing us to be there as long as we wanted and steal so many moments with you that I would have selfishly kept for myself, were I in his shoes.
Perhaps the most vivid image I took away from that weekend, though, was when our other two best friends and I got to bathe you in preparation for your wedding. It was one of the most beautiful and spiritual experiences I have ever had. The slow and gentle way we helped you prepare for and enter the bath; the tenderness with which we washed your frail, ailing body; the pride you demonstrated in showing us your breast reconstruction and then the subsequent sense of your body’s betrayal evident in your eyes; and the way your body and soul seemed to exhale as you sank into the bubbles and rested your head on the bath pillow a dear friend had thought to send over that morning. You have given me many gifts in our 25 years of friendship; but, allowing us to take care of you in such a raw and vulnerable way is the greatest gift you ever gave me. That, and pulling me in for our final embrace, whispering, “you’re such a badass” into my ear.
Less than three weeks later, you were gone.
The last text message you responded to was a screenshot I sent you of a horribly unfortunate autocorrected text I had sent to my mother-in-law (that may or may not have involved me accidentally propositioning her). You responded with a laughing emoji. The fact that the last communication in our decades of friendship was you laughing at something stupid I did seems completely perfect.
About 48 hours after you died, you found a way to tell me that you were okay and that I would be, too. As circumstances go, I had to take my mom to the ER for a relatively minor issue. After hanging out in the waiting room for a few minutes, a nurse came to get us and, as she was walking us to a room, she turned and said, “Hi, I’m Mariana and I’ll be taking care of you today.” I gasped and said, “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?” She responded, “Mariana.” I looked up at her and said, “Wow, my dear friend just passed away two days ago and her name was Mariana.” She smiled and said, “I’ve never known another Mariana.” So, yeah, thanks for taking care of us that day…and all the days since.
THE 2ND TRIP
A few days later, I found myself in front of an empty suitcase again. I was packing to come back to your town. This was the trip that we had been talking about all summer, when I would be coming for a family wedding and we would get to hang out on your turf. This was the trip I was supposed to take to see you. Not the one I did a few weeks ago. But, unlike last time, I knew what I needed to pack this time around. I knew what you would want me to have in that suitcase.
When I landed in your airport, I felt paralyzed. I walked by the spot where I had sat huddled on the floor in a corner just a few weeks ago, sobbing, bargaining with God to just give you more time. Just wait until I come back in a couple weeks. That was our plan; that’s when we were going to hang out. I rushed out of that airport as fast as I could to escape into the joy and distraction of another wedding. Two days later, I was standing in your driveway, looking up at your bedroom window. It felt like a lifetime ago, but I could still feel the breeze blowing in that window, surrounding all of us, as we surrounded you. I thought about your last moments in that room and how you might have been gazing outward and upward into the night sky.
I wanted to see your family. I needed to see your family. And, like he has done for all of us in the midst of his own grief, your husband opened the front door and welcomed me back. I needed to be in that space and cognitively grasp that you weren’t just upstairs resting, while I hung out downstairs like last time. I needed to walk by your bedroom, see the darkness, and accept that you weren’t in there. But, you were all around. I felt you. And, I knew I needed to leave what you had told me to bring.
During one of our last conversations, you shared your worries about your nieces. They are 10 and 6 years old and I have heard you gush about them for years, ever the doting tía. After getting to know them (and their serious card shark skills!), I get it. They are pretty amazing. You knew that they were hurting and confused and that all of this was probably a lot for them to understand and process. As a psychologist who specializes in trauma, I knew that, too, and maybe that’s why I gravitated to them as well. You said in a 2012 post, “These are the cards I was dealt, let’s play.” The irony is not lost on me that my new connection to these kiddos that meant the world to you was forged through hours of playing with those stupid cards I threw in my suitcase. I knew what you wanted me to do.
I pulled a letter out of my suitcase and gave it to them, telling them to read it later, when their mom and dad felt it was the right time. It was a letter that told them that I and our other two best friends would always be there. That, as they grew up and needed guidance in the way only an auntie can give, we would be there to tell them stories about their fearless aunt and how she would handle things. That we would make sure they always felt connected to you, even as they move through the different chapters of their lives. And, that we would do our best to show up for them, in all the ways you longed to.
THE FINAL TRIP
So, now here I am again. For the third time in six weeks, I find myself standing in my closet, in front of an empty suitcase, trying to figure out how to pack to say goodbye to you for the last time. During our final hours together, you wondered aloud what your legacy might be. And, I thought about the foreshadowing words you wrote years ago:
“Grateful and appreciative doesn't even begin to describe the feeling. So, I'll sum it up by sharing what I read once, ‘the value of one's good deed is measured in the gratitude of another's heart.’ My heart is so full with your love. Thank you.”
As we prepare to celebrate and honor your life, pray over you, and lay you to rest in the church and town where you grew up, I believe the coming days will be about gratitude. The depth of the gratitude we all feel for having had you in our lives, even if it doesn’t feel long enough, IS your legacy. My dear friend, the value of your life can be measured in the gratitude of our hearts.
I’m still not sure what to pack, but I do know this. I’d give anything to be able to pack another lifetime of memories with you in this suitcase. But, these are the cards I’ve been dealt, so let’s play.