“Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.” ~Alice Walker
The pearlescent, azure-hued soft fullness of a gently embraced blueberry, pulled with two or three delicate fingers, dropped in the mouth, followed by the warm rush of deep sweetness. Or perhaps a raspberry, even more delicate, necessitating even more care and love. The visceral reward defies description.
The first hint of an autumn breeze brushing against cheeks after a long, humid, rain-soaked summer, with perhaps just a hint of rustle among the dying leaves.
The brilliant hue of roadside wildflowers, reds, oranges, yellows and blues, aching to be admired amidst the weeds and brush.
“I don’t wish to refer to cancer as a gift, as it begs explanation and is complicated” a dear friend, a survivor herself, explained to me as she sat in my darkened room in the Neuro-Surgical Ward at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “But there is no question such an experience by its very nature allows you to see the world through a different lens.”
When I held my dying grandmother’s hand many years ago, as she lay twisting and writhing in discomfort, spending her last moments with her body pulverized with the effects of emphysema, I finally said “Grandma, it’s OK. You don’t have to fight. You can let go. I love you very much and I always will.” She moved on, an hour later, as she slowly let herself go, into the slipstream. Where she went I have no idea. But at least her body was no longer fighting itself.
There is a phrase quoted and assigned, correctly or not, to the Lakota Sioux leader Crazy Horse, Tasunka Witko, who would cry “Hóka-héy. Today is a good day to die!” While the origins are debatable and the phrase has been “Hollywoodized,” I have often thought deeply on this matter. Whether used as a warrior call or to illuminate the reward of living a full life, certainly, while I have no intention of going anywhere at the moment, the stealthy brain cancer now part of me forces my hand and heart a little deeper into a journey I had not anticipated taking.
What it boils down to for me, until there is nothing left but steam in the pot, is this fundamental question: do I want to leave this earth as happy as possible or as miserable as possible. Do I want to drink the juice from those blueberries and raspberries, or let them wither on the vine? Do I never, ever stop to truly crane my head into the wind and feel that breeze on my face and do I pause, even once a day, to take “it” all in.
There is much to be unhappy about. As we struggle past the numerical landmark of one of the most tragic days in recent US history, with so many lives lost and damaged forever, the invocation of other human and natural disasters large and small, also moved to the front for me. Countless wars, both geo-political and religious. Nagasaki, Hiroshima, The Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chernobyl, Rwanda, Bhopal, crime, poverty, starvation…where could the list possibly end? Where does it begin? To this day, reports I wrote in middle school on the Kent State Massacre and The People’s Temple in Guyana chill me to the bone, two examples of evil embodied. I am grateful I attended a school which did not hide me from the harshness as well as the beauty of the world within and around.
And, no surprise to many, there are now 9/11 survivors, most of them rescue workers, who were misled or blatantly lied to by our own government, who have died or are dying of causes directly related to the billions of pounds of toxic dust inhaled after the attacks. Those who told the heroes that the air quality was fine to breathe included then EPA Chief Christine Todd Whitman and then-Mayor Giuliani. A disgrace. And I do believe anger has a place especially if it forces us to question and challenge. No lemmings should we become.
But there is indeed a balance. Not for a single moment have I asked myself “why me?” or “why now?” A friend, who, incidentally is quite a good card player, shared that we are “all dealt a deck of cards” and we have little impact on which cards will be chosen. Are our glasses half-full or half empty? I prefer mine spilling over whenever possible. There is no other choice lest we wind up curled up in the corner, in a fetal position, driven mad by the fear, pain and hatred around us. I recognize for some, coping with this madness results in just that: madness. But I have little time to cry in my oatmeal, at least for too long. I tell myself, it is ok to cry, to get mad, irritable, frustrated, even sink into the lows of depression. All of which I have felt, especially, for obvious reasons, more frequently. But I will not allow these emotions to consume my days. We have but one chance to enjoy the blueberries, the raspberries, the wind and the rain and the flowers.