A cousin of mine passed away yesterday. She was a few years younger than I, in her late 30s, with a loving husband and three small children – two tweenage boys and a girl, just turned six.
It was pancreatic cancer, which is a pretty evil thing. No known risk factors, can strike at any age. Very few symptoms, the kind that can just be brushed aside, until it moves into other organs. The vast majority of patients aren’t diagnosed until it’s already stage 4 – giving them less than a year to live. My cousin got just six months out of the deal.
I live pretty far away and so it was easy to pretend that nothing was wrong. She was cheerful about it, and had a strong faith in God that meant that her Facebook posts were upbeat, showing her feeling like everything would work out according to the world’s intended plan. She never complained, only cherished those around her; she didn’t look sick because she didn’t undergo any major treatments – there wasn’t any point.
So it’s been a bit of a shock. I am sad. I am angry. It doesn’t seem right to be eating or sleeping or reading a book when there is such a wrong that has been done.
When the kids were still a twinkle in our eyes, I used to think the worst possible thing would be losing a child. And don’t get me wrong – that’s still completely unthinkable. But after they were born I gained a new top fear: the fear of something happening to me. The fear that I wouldn’t be there to hold their hands, wipe their noses, help them figure out this crazy thing called life. The fear that they’d be sad, or lonely, or sick, and they’d call out for me, only I wouldn’t be there to make it all go away. It made me be extra careful every time I walked down the stairs or crossed the road. I started eating more vegetables.
It seems like some sort of hubris to think that I’m irreplaceable. That no one could ever make them a cheese sandwich in exactly the right way, that no one else could ever keep the names of all their stuffed animals straight, that no one else will remember what brand of underwear is the only acceptable brand (different for each kid, of course). It even seems conceited to think that no one could ever love them like I do.
And yet, I do think that. Recently Gal Smiley told me that when I die, she plans to take my brain and put it in a robot version of myself so I can be with her always. That’s just about the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard. I want that too, honey.
I want that for my cousin as well. She has a strong church community and loving relatives and I know her family is going to be okay. But they’re never going to be the same.
Stories like this are the kind of thing that make you feel like you should be spending every moment, every day, cherishing the time you have with your kids. You should be thankful for the chance to be together, grateful for this life. But you just can’t be like that every single second, just like you can’t not complain about the food because people are starving in the world, or not feel frustrated at traffic because some people don’t have a car. Kids are frustrating sometimes, and sometimes you have a bad day, and sometimes these things collide to mean you’re not quite as thankful and grateful as you should be. That’s okay. But today, for just today, I will value them. I will feel joy that I am their mother and wife, that I am here and they are here and we are all healthy.
People sometimes ask a fun party question – what would you do if you found out you only had a few months left to live? I know my answer. I would write. Write through the sadness and the anger until my hands were too sore to continue. I’d try to pour everything I am and everything I think and everything I value onto the paper. I’d try to give my children a lifetime of my advice and caring and love in page after page of words. Words they could come back to time and again, words that kept me alive in a little way, a small way. Words that showed them that I didn’t want to leave them; words that would help them tell their own children about who I was.
And so: this blog. May this little diary keep me alive long past my assigned years. May these words tell my family, over and over again: I love you.