I seem interested only in speaking with people I believe can talk about loss in a particular way. Artist Holly Swan wrote: “When you experience a loss, time seems to stop. You are left with a hole. But what if that hole is a sacred space you hold in your heart?” To me, there is no “what if?” Of course that hole is a sacred space.
I am interested in talking about that hole and how it is we carry it as we move through life. One moment, we experience it as an ache; in another, it is an abyss; in another, a weight and a darkness. Then there are moments when its presence is momentarily outside of our awareness.
Being with someone who is dying is a meditation. Or maybe better put, it is an invitation to meditate (which Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as “attention in the moment without judgment”). Simone was in the hospital at two separate times over the course of two-and-a-half weeks: once for six days when she was first diagnosed, and the next for three full days and nights when it was clear that chemo wouldn’t buy her any more time. That first stint, I was in the hospital room with Simone and Lauren two nights and three days, and the second time I stayed three nights and three days.
I saw my main job as being another maternal presence for Simone’s nights while Lauren slept a couple feet away on the hospital cot. My hope was that Lauren would be able to ease into sleep knowing someone equally watchful was awake, attending to her gravely ill child while she slept. There were moments, awake at night, when my mind ran ahead. Perhaps I’d think to the up-coming meeting with the oncologist, or perhaps I’d anticipate the next moment when Simone would awaken, and I’d worry that she would need something I couldn’t offer. (After all, what could I offer? I wasn’t her mom and I wasn’t a miracle-worker.)
Thinking ahead like this, I felt a rising panic every time. In the future, another glass waited to shatter, to send its sharp, hard pieces through the air, to pierce us on the fragile platform we’d made after the last bit of shattering news. How could I prepare in any way for the next wound? How could I hope to see which direction it was coming from to protect us from it?
Thinking like this for any length of time would clearly render me useless before long. At some point, thankfully, I’d remember to tell myself, “Just get through this moment. How is it right now? You can’t know about the next one; stay in this one.”
Writing about being with someone who is dying – about being with her, her mother and her grandparents, with her boyfriend, uncles and her cousins – is somewhat fraught. I need to reassure my reader (that is, I need to reassure you for myself, not necessarily for you) that I know the heroes of this story are Simone and her mom, Lauren. I do not mean or intend to appropriate that. I need to say explicitly that while I want to write about what I saw and thought and experienced, I in no way mean to suggest – ever – that the role I played was super-hard. My job in this story was a cakewalk compared to my sister-in-law, Lauren’s. All I had to do was support the two of them as they made some very hard decisions. I didn’t have to make any of those decisions myself, and so I was free of second-guessing them later.
That’s the “I” who is writing this. She is the “I” who had the luxury of being one removed.