She was dying when I met her. We met through online personal ads, and she wrote me saying that she liked the philosophy I had sprinkled through my post. I don't even recall what it said, really--something about finding humor and hope even in down times, I think. And she told me she'd been through some down times. She'd fought breast cancer, her husband had left her when she was diagnosed with the disease. This might send other people into a spiral of despair and self-pity that they could never pull out of. But, she hadn't surrendered to her worries and woes. She bested them, and went on to live a terrific life. She had gotten a butterfly tattoo--it was her symbol of transformation. The time of her cancer and her divorce were when she had been drawn into her cocoon. But she'd emerged with wings.
At the time I met her, she was cancer free--or, more accurately, her cancer treatment had pushed the disease back to a level below the threshold of detection. She was up front about this--she told me that she was living with the knowledge that her disease might return any day. After I'd been dating her about three months, she put a timeline on it. According to the doctor, she said, all but a handful of people who had been through breast cancer and had it spread to other parts of the body would survive more than five years, even if they were "cured."
We were in the stage of our relationship where we were hungry for each other, very fully in that early, giddy, passionate love that is so intoxicating. And she wanted me to have all the facts. She wanted me to understand, before I fell too much in love, that we would probably never have the kind of relationship where we would grow old and gray together. There wasn't much chance of us sitting on the rocking chair on the porch and watching our grandkids play. Her exact words to me were, "I'm not a very good investment."
I admit, at the time, it staggered me. She said she didn't really know if she would live to see her 40th birthday. It wasn't something I could really wrap my head around. At the time she told me this, she was very healthy--maybe the healthiest person I knew. She ate right, loved being outdoors, and possessed this thirst for life that just made it impossible to think that she might be in any danger from disease. Plus, every day in the papers, there was some new development in the fight against cancer. The genetics were being unraveled. New drugs were better, more targeted. Worrying about death from cancer five years out just wasn't a worry I was prepared to embrace. I really believed at the time that a real cure was only a year or two away. And so I told her I was in this for the long haul. Things would work out.
So, of course, the cancer returned a few months later. Lungs, liver, spine--tiny tumors only millimeters long, but described in the cat scan as "innumerable." The tumors were like shrapnel from the world's slowest hand grenade. Up until that point, we had been able to talk a bit about a future together. But, we hadn't been rushing things. She'd been through a divorce, I'd been through two--we weren't the sort of people who were going to run out and get married in Vegas. We both felt a long, slow courtship was best. If marriage was going to be talked about, it would be talked about after a few years, not a few months. But once the cancer returned, discussions of the future were shut down. We dealt mainly with the day to day, and with the immediately problems caused by her illness and treatment.
Last year, I asked her if she would like to get married. She'd gotten too sick to work full time. It seemed like there was a lot I would be able to help her with as a spouse that I was legally not able to as a boyfriend. She turned me down. She said she didn't want to take me down with her.
Even then, I didn't give up hope. The growth of her disease had been very gradual. The tiny little flea sided tumors would grow to rice sized tumors, then fade a bit, then return as fly sized tumors. A few years ago a few of the tumors in her lung went wild and grew much larger--her lungs began to fill with fluid, and she landed in the hospital with blood oxygen levels at in a range that might have killed another person. That was about 18 months ago--and she beat it back. She had a drain installed in her chest--and every night for weeks we would drain of the fluid. And slowly she got her breath back. She went from near death on New Years Eve to walking over a mile in downtown High Point with me in March as we looked for a Mexican restaurant "just down the street" that turned out to have shut down months before. The chemo she had gotten immediately after her surgury did a good job of holding back the disease. I started to think that anyone who could survive that dark time could beat anything.
She died Saturday morning, May 6, about 3:40. She was 39. I held her hand as she went.
In the days to come, I plan to write a lot about Laura. I didn't write much about her here over the last few years because I worried about her kids reading my blog and discovering my fears and anxieties. For that matter, I didn't want her to read about my fears and anxieties. I had a clearly defined job in Laura's life. She saw a lot of doctors over the years. I was her spin doctor. There was no bit of news she could get that was so bad that I couldn't find some positive or funny way of looking at it. When chemo made her skin peel and crack, I told her to imagine that same reaction going on inside, chewing up tumor. When she was in the hospital week before last with her liver swelling, she was next to a woman who was flat out yellow, like florescent highlighter had been rubbed over every part of her body. That woman was obviously dying, and in a lot of pain. This is a horrible thing to say, but I helped Laura find a grim comfort in it, because, in the presence of someone whose liver had failed, the fact that Laura's liver had swollen didn't seem so bad. Things were going wrong inside her, but obviously her liver was still working, and if she had to spend the rest of her life in maternity pants, well, there are worse fates.
So, for close to four years, I've spent pretty much every day thinking of reasons why Laura was going to beat the cancer, and giving her pep talks. And then I'd come downstairs (I rented her basement apartment) and stand in the shower and groan, on the verge of tears, because I knew, deep down, that I didn't believe it. Little by little, the cancer was winning. Every time a chemo drug exhausted itself, it left her just a little sicker and the tumors just a little tougher and more drug resistant. I knew it was only a matter of time. She knew, too. But the unspoken rule was that we were never going to talk about the possibility of her losing. She wanted to fight until the last possible second, and I had her back.
As she died over the last few days, I've second guessed a lot of my decisions. Because, if someone had given me a calendar, and said, "Yep, May 6. That's the day," then maybe I would have handled things differently. I praised her almost daily about what a fighter she was, and how awed I was of her strength. I told her I admired her courage. But, I wish there was a point where I had also said it's okay to give up. No one was going to judge her or think her weak for letting go. And maybe she could have used the last few days to say good-bye to people. But I don't know. I don't know if she could have made peace with the idea of dying, or if her desire to live was just too strong for her to ever willingly let go, no matter how bad things got. I wasn't there with her when they put her under Thursday morning to hook up the ventilator. I'm told her last words were, "Is there hope?"
The fact that I wasn't there to say yes is going to haunt me for a long time.
I talked to her a lot while she was under the morphine, probably beyond hearing me. I'll never know. A lot of what I said to her is going to remain between me and her. But there was one thing I told her. She was the best investment of time and energy and love I ever made. I don't believe in a soul, or an afterlife, but, I promise you, I believe in memory, and her memory has forever changed me, and changed dozens of others. Everyone who knew her is going to carry part of her for the rest of their lives. She will live on from this day in a slowly expanding wave of kindness and courage and hope that spreads from the people who knew her to the people they know.
She was dying when I met her. She knew it. And it made her truly, deeply aware that she loved her life. She lived with a passion and a grace that I've never before encountered.
Oh, sweet Jesus, I'm going to miss her.