Tuesday, December 25, 2012

death be not proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.

                                                                   John Donne

Andrea died yesterday. 

I learned about it the modern way, a Facebook chat message. It’s strange, even when death is expected it almost always sneaks up on you and shouts “surprise” in your ear.

Andrea was sick, very sick. For more than two decades she lived with the terminal diagnosis of metastasized stage 4 breast cancer. We all tend to say at times such as this: she lost her long battle against etc…etc…and so on. I think of it a little differently.  Andrea didn’t live with cancer, cancer lived with her. Unbidden, it moved into her tissue and slowly began edging her out.

Andrea did not go quietly. Surrender wasn’t in her vocabulary. Not some sweet, new ager she. Andrea was a small, wiry, tough person filled with anger—an anger I believe fueled her life. A life, by the way, which she continued to find ways to enjoy—her music, movies, TV, plays and so on. She knew what she liked, fought with her husband, adored her dogs and didn’t hesitate to express herself, regardless. I know that firsthand. 

Last winter I struggled with a severe respiratory infection that had me coughing up blood and puss, straining to breathe, unable to even croak out a sound. After six weeks, alone and feeling sorry for myself, I made the mistake of posting: I’m sick of being sick on my FB page. Andrea landed on me like a house of bricks. And while I could certainly understand where it came from, I have to admit it didn’t make me feel any better. But that wasn’t her point.

I did not know Andrea before the cancer, but I suspect the disease did not change her nature. This past Fall, she took a belated birthday bus trip into NYC with our mutual friend Diane to see Wicked—only one of two plays she would agree to see. Diane later told me she fought with almost everyone she came in contact with, including the bus driver. She also insisted on walking to the restaurant, regardless of the neuropathy that plagued her legs.

Diane and I just nodded and smiled. Yup, that’s Andrea.

I did get to spend some time with her this summer, a long afternoon relaxing in Diane’s backyard. We just talked until shadows gathered. There wasn’t much left of her body but her mind—and tongue retained their sharpness. She still drove.

I do not believe Andrea “lost her battle” with cancer. I believe she finally decided to leave behind the condemned structure and move on. I’m betting she also has no more need for the anger to fill the spaces the cancer would claim. I choose to think she now has room for joy,

Sorry Andrea, I am not a cynic, so sue me.