On Saturday, we will bury one of our own. I will call her Lavender Lily, since she was a very private, prideful person, to respect that through the end. At one point, I worked with LL on an almost daily basis. At one point, I was her boss. At one point, I was her friend.
Of the four years I’ve known her, she fought ovarian cancer for the last three, though I suspect it hid within her for longer. What started as a bloated feeling moved to digestive problems that morphed into abdominal pain and swelling. A year after diagnosis and treatment, she’d said her levels were better and that it was “all clear.” Yet it wasn’t and by the next year, another “just to be safe” round of chemo began. Cancer is sneaky like that.
My feelings now at her death are bittersweet. Gone is the voice robbed of sound from the struggle to breathe. Gone is the constant frame of nausea. Yet I don’t kid myself in understanding the dynamic of our working relationship in the backdrop of her struggle. The shared aftermath for those of us left behind has tiers. While four years ago, LL’s mask was one of perfection—detailed make-up, every hair in place, stories of a happy marriage and idyllic family life—there were so many things she didn’t want to be seen.
Turns out her personal world was a house of cards, so with the stress of cancer introduced, the crumble began. Each of us were only allowed to witness a small pocket of her pain and all of us were pushed away. I’ve always said that weddings and funerals bring out what is at the base of people. I can now add to that extended and terminal illness.
I can’t imagine the energy focus required dealing with the business of survival, or the stories LL had to tell herself. I used to call that denial, but now who am I to say? She revealed once, in the midst of treatment in 2008, that she was afraid to die. I could only listen and try to be a pillar of strength, never letting on how I clenched my jar to bear watching her tears.
Maybe the doctor told her from the beginning what stage it was and her odds. Maybe he gave her a length of survival time once the treatments were again necessary. She chose to tell me none of those factual details. Instead, she put on the brave mask to make it past each day. She continued to make trays of bake goods to sustain us during the cold winter months. She spoke of her love for her grandkids and her plans for their future. I remember her telling me just before the holidays how the treatments were affecting her throat and causing her to lose her voice, yet she knew they were working. Even after being placed into hospice, I’m told she led her family and others to believe it wasn’t as bad as it was. Facing her fear, maybe in the end that is what she still needed to believe.
Flickr image Lavender Water Lily by Rosa Say