Learning How to Die

A woman with terminal cancer offers a beautiful and inspiring perspective on facing death.


| Fall 2014



Dead fish

"I thought about my childhood cat, Mince, who, when she got sick, wandered off into the woods to die. She didn't want our comfort. She reverted to her primal nature. My mother told me that was what animals did. They died in private."

Photo by Flickr/Phoenix Wolf-Ray

For 26 Septembers I’ve hiked up streams littered with corpses of dying humpbacked salmon. It is nothing new, nothing surprising, not the stench, not the gore, not the thrashing of black humpies plowing past their dead brethren to spawn and die. It is familiar; still, it is terrible and wild. Winged and furred predators gather at the mouths of streams to pounce, pluck, tear, rip, and plunder the living, dying hordes. This September, it is just as terrible and wild as ever, but I gather in the scene with different eyes, the eyes of someone whose own demise is no longer an abstraction, the eyes of someone who has experienced the tears, rips, and plunder of cancer treatment. In spring, I learned my breast cancer had come back, had metastasized to the pleura of my right lung. Metastatic breast cancer is incurable. Through its prism I now see this world.

I’m not a salmon biologist. I don’t hike salmon streams as part of my job. I hike up streams and bear trails and muskegs and mountains for pleasure. The work my husband, Craig, and I do each field season in Prince William Sound is sedentary. We study whales. For weeks at a stretch, we live on a 34-foot boat far from any town, often out of cell phone and internet range. We sit for hours on the flying bridge with binoculars or a camera pressed to our eyes. Periodically, we climb down the ladder and walk a few paces to the cabin to retrieve the orca or humpback catalog, to drop the hydrophone, or to grab fresh batteries, mugs of hot soup or tea, or granola bars. We climb back up. We get wet; we get cold; we get bored; sometimes we even get sunburned. We eat, sleep, and work on the boat. Hikes are our sanity, our maintenance. We hike because we love this rainy, lush, turbulent, breathing, expiring, windy place as much as we love our work with whales. It’s a good thing, because in autumn, weather thwarts our research half the time and sends us ashore, swaddled in heavy rain gear, paddling against williwaw gusts and sideways rain in our red plastic kayaks. What we find there is not always pretty.

Normally, September is the beginning of the end of our field season, which starts most years in April or May. But for me, this year it’s just the beginning, and conversely, like everything else in my life since I learned cancer had come back, it’s tinged with the prescience of ending. The median survival for a person with metastatic breast cancer is 26 months. Some people live much longer. An oncologist told me he could give me a prognosis if I demanded one, but it would most likely be wrong. I changed the subject. No one can tell me how long I will live. Will this be my last field season? Will the chemo drug I’m taking subdue the cancer into a long-term remission? Will I be well enough to work on the boat next summer? Will I be alive?

A summer of tests and procedures and doctor appointments kept me off the boat until now. A surgery and six-day hospitalization in early August to prevent fluid from building up in my pleural space taught me that certain experiences cut us off entirely from nature—or seem to; I know that as long as we inhabit bodies of flesh, blood, and bone, we are wholly inside nature. But under medical duress, we forget this. Flesh, blood, and bone not withstanding, a body hooked by way of tubes to suction devices, by way of an IV to a synthetic morphine pump, forgets its organic, animal self. In the hospital, I learned to fear something more than death: existence dependent upon technology, machines, sterile procedures, hoses, pumps, chemicals easing one kind of pain only to feed a psychic other. Existence apart from dirt, mud, muck, wind gust, crow caw, fishy orca breath, bog musk, deer track, rain squall, bear scat. The whole ordeal was a necessary palliation, a stint of suffering to grant me long-term physical freedom. And yet it smacked of the way people too often spend their last days alive, and it really scared me.

Ultimately, what I faced those hospital nights, what I face every day, is death impending—the other side, the passing over into, the big unknown—what writer Harold Brodkey called his “wild darkness,” what poet Christian Wiman calls his “bright abyss.” Death may be the wildest thing of all, the least tamed or known phenomenon our consciousness has to reckon with. I don’t understand how to meet it, not yet—maybe never. Perhaps (I tell myself), though we deny and abhor and battle death in our society, though we hide it away, it is something so natural, so innate, that when the time comes, our bodies—our whole selves—know exactly how it’s done. All I know right now is that something has stepped toward me, some invisible presence in the woods, one I’ve always sensed and feared and backed away from, called out to in a tentative voice (hello?), trying to scare it off, but which I now must approach. I stumble toward it in dusky conifer light: my own predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel.

 

dubairandi
4/23/2015 5:59:19 AM

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rick
9/22/2014 10:21:48 AM

We don’t have to understand. God understands and that’s all that matters. Proverb 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD … lean not on your own understanding … and he will make your paths straight.” OVERTHROW JUDGEMENT, EMBRACE LOVE! give voice to a scandalous awakening of receiving - JESUS IS LORD