Today I attended the funeral of one of my closest friends.
I’m not sure how to conceive of this, or work it into my parameters of thought. She died on Monday. And we knew it was coming — or, it would be a lie to say it was a surprise. She also had stage iv breast cancer, though a more aggressive and less treatable kind than I have. We were diagnosed initially — she stage ii and me stage iii — around the same time, and then went into remission together, then were rediagnosed stage iv within a few months of one another. Those experiences were strange enough to strike me as remarkable, and in ways we understood each other and the fear that nested in our bones because of our diagnoses more intimately than should be possible.
Cancer is not pretty; at the end, it is especially not pretty. It is not a noble or quiet death. It is loud, and persistent, and disfiguring. It leaves no room for mistakes — no moments from which you can turn your head and look back to something less formidable, or less frightening. It is more than unforgiving, it is relentless. You cannot hide from its eventuality. There is no cure for stage iv, and every time someone asks me “well, what if they find a cure” I want to shout as loud as I can, as long as I can. Stage iv is in your blood, and if you’re lucky they can hold it off for long stretches of good time before it decides to come out of hiding and rebrand your body with its fierce and irrefutable madness.
You do not hide. She did not hide. I do not hide; I will not hide. I model my life and my perspective after her — staring fear and loss and grief in the face, unblinking.
I say, in the wake of her light and her footsteps soft but steady on our horizons, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
The first time we spoke at length was after her mastectomy but before mine; both hopeful, both face toward the end of treatment with joy. When I began chemo after this second, less hopeful diagnosis, she turned up at my first treatment with yogurt covered raisins, 4 People magazines, and a pink Hope ring I wear every day — and will always. I remember the day she showed up for chemo at Dana, bald, after hanging onto her hair long after I gave up and shaved mine off. I remember when her cancer shifted silently from dangerous to devastating, and she crawled into my hospital bed during my infusion and whispered in my ear “It’s so much worse than we thought” and all I could say in response was a feeble, helpless “Okay, okay, okay.” I remember the day in late summer she came out to my barn and rode my horse through the fields; the image of her and her husband walking hand in hand through the orchard pressed onto the folds of my skin, the weight of my muscles, the depth of my bones. I remember the day I was sitting in a coffee shop in Cambridge and she called me to tell me she had brain mets. I couldn’t figure out how to cry that day and ended up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, trying to force myself to feel something, anything at all.
I decided about a month ago I’m going to study for an M.Div and become a Unitarian minister after completing my PhD in Spring 2015 and I’m doing it because of her. I had the chance to tell her this last week and through everything being thrown at her in those moments the look of joy on her face was unmistakable and I will carry it with me forever.
Her mother said today: “We kept praying for a miracle but silly us, Charlene was the miracle.”
I have no words for this.
Today I attended her funeral.
And today we stood, unmoored in the fierce and unfettered fear of loss, a community netted by one presence who shook the world so, so deeply, so tectonically, with her love and determination, whose smile and laughter and support rooted so strongly into the core of every friend she had that when the priest mentioned her loss I said, only half in whisper, “I did not lose her, we did not lose her” — we have not lost her, she will never be lost —
And I wonder if the only bulwark we can fashion against this kind of terminal is that love, is the trust that loss is not permanent because the physical manifestation of our bodies is only part of the gift we are given, or that we have to give. That we can walk through the highest fires of fear and pain with those we love, because of love, because we are given the opportunities to love and to support and to stand next to one another, full of fear and apprehension and hurt but unmoving. That we are not born strong enough or steady enough to manage this — what ever the fuck this is, this horrible, heavy version of dark — but if every moment is an opportunity to make it to the next we should honor that opportunity and press ourselves onward anyway, knowing that the pursuit itself shapes us into better forms. That what is more weighted and meaningful is the hope and the love and the joy we bring to one another, to remember in our moments of fear or panic or loss or pain, to hold close when nothing else good is close; that we have more to give than our presences —
but god does it hurt when those pass.
You are the miracle, Charlene. This is for you. This will always be for you.