Recently I was over at my friend Cristina’s house. Just as I was leaving to go home, she looked right at me and said thank you. I looked right back at her and thanked her just as hard.
What were we thanking each other for? On some level I knew why she was thanking me. Fifteen months ago Cristina was diagnosed with brain cancer. Since that time we have spent many hours together, talking and walking, eating meals, sometimes visiting the hospital, often just sitting around chatting like we were that day. Having company and help when you are going through something as cataclysmic as this is essential. Many people have stepped forward to offer their support.
But there was more to it, I knew. Her husband had mentioned it to me a few times. It was my willingness to go as far as I could with her to where this thing is ultimately headed. She was thanking me for that too.
It was also the reason I was thanking her. When all this started I remember thinking that this was a terrible thing happening to our friend. Along with the shock and grief and fear, I felt an acute sense of separateness. This was happening to her, not me. I would do all I could to help her through it, but it seemed like in the end she would go and we would all stay. Something about that separateness felt painful to me and not exactly true either.
One morning in the spring, I went for a mammogram. I sat in a room with other women, all of us wearing thin cotton robes after the images were taken waiting for our consultations with the radiologist. As the others got called in, I waited. And waited. Finally they called me in, saying they needed to take more pictures on one side. Heart thumping, I consented. Then I waited again. And again they wanted to take more images. Then an ultrasound. In the end, it was nothing. Throughout the time I was there though, I watched the other women come and go from their appointments with ease. I never felt more isolated and scared in my life.
I knew then that the separateness went both ways. I felt separate from Cristina’s tumor and she most likely felt separate, in a much more painful way, from my lack of illness. Later that day we were on a walk and I mentioned what had happened. “Oh you’ve had a hard day!” she said. What love. She got it of course, that it hurts to feel so alone.
There was something else that caught my attention. It was the surprising level of denial in our culture about death. As Cristina cried deeply for her love of her husband and children or asked the universe why this was happening to her, I could see how painful and scary these matters are. It is heroic to square up to this stuff. Most of us spend our time distracting ourselves with our goals, ambitions, desires, and grievances.
And here’s where the beauty comes in. I have loved every moment I’ve spent with Cristina over this time. Right from the start, all of the things that we usually use to measure our value – our careers, our accomplishments, our clothes, looks, cool boots, whatever – none of it mattered much. We could chat about these things or reminisce, but it was clear what really matters is love. Here and now, in this moment. That’s when separation starts to fade.
Recently I have heard some Buddhist teachings on the topic of death. My teacher here in Seattle, Rodney Smith, worked in hospice care for many years. He gave a talk the other night in which he asked us to feel the difference between that which is impermanent (in each moment things are constantly changing) and that which doesn’t change. I looked for a stillness surrounding the ongoing movement of life. He said it is this stillness, the quiet spaciousness, that doesn’t die. Everything else goes.
I don’t have great answers. But what I’m beginning to understand is that death isn’t just about the big moment when I go from being me to being nothing. In some way it is constantly happening, the arising and the passing away of life that is happening all the time. And so whatever this is, it isn’t just happening to Cristina. It is happening to all of us, all the time. The letting go is living. We have no choice.
I still feel afraid. I still feel like me and I don’t want Cristina to die. My heart hurts a lot of the time. But what seemed off to me way back when we first started to confront death, the separation and the idea that it was just happening to her, that has shifted. We’re all in this together. This crazy ass hand we’ve been dealt. This beautiful, mysterious, difficult life.
So thank you, Cristina. You amazing, funny, smart, creative, strong person who helped me grow. You are loved completely.