This morning I visited a person with cancer. She lives alone at home with her dog-friend of many years. I knock and enter. Many lights on and heater blasting. Kitchen counter cluttered with cartons of milk and orange juice, odds and ends, untidy. Laundry basked overflowing. My host barely gets out of her chair, has difficulty breathing, stands in the middle of the room, seems disoriented. A tender embrace and we sit down, in facing arm chairs, next to the garden window.
Could you get me some juice, she asks, confiding later that it’s not easy for her to ask me to do things; What do I owe you each time you come? It looks as if our visit will be short this time, it tires her to engage. I offer to read aloud and we agree that P.D. James’ latest book is disappointing. I grew up on the Prairies. Hard work, getting things done, not sitting idly, qualities demanded by sheep, cows, fields, and gardens. There were always fences to mend and tools to repair. We look at the last leaves clinging to the apple trees in her garden, signalling the season’s ending. I miss my preserving. Used to set the jars all around this room, have a sale near Christmas. Now the shelves are bare. Which brings us to cancer, her deteriorating condition, marked by pain, tiredness, and bloating.
I’m giving things away much more easily, after a lifetime of holding on. She sends me to the cold storage to load up with apples: Good for baking crumble. While out there, I collect what had fallen unto the lawn and into flower beds; some half creature-eaten, others just fine with a little brushing. I get so scared sometimes. Of dying. Of becoming dependent on others. A friend’s coming this afternoon to fold the laundry, do some shopping, then stay overnight; another in the morning to take her to the cancer clinic.
I’d like the Lord’s Prayer said at my funeral, and I want you to say that I had a good life, am grateful for everything. And so we drift from words spoken to others left unsaid. That’s enough for today. A full hour has flown past. Take some chutney; let me know what you think. … On the way out, I put juice and milk in the fridge.
Walking away, I feel burdened. The old caregiver’s dilemma: was I of any use to her? What might I have said or done to ease her suffering? Is ‘being present’ sufficient? And what about that recurring question (with her, within myself) of fear. What is it about death that scares us so?