Sunday I talked with a dear friend whose partner is dying of pancreatic cancer. She walked to the top of their garden in the West Virginia mountains to get better cell reception.
Our conversation was surreal. Were we really talking about him dying?
“I am in a dream,” she wrote in January after he was diagnosed. “Never felt so full of love and yet so shattered. Never felt so potentially devastated by a loss. I feel like I don’t know ANYTHING for sure anymore….cause and effect seem unknowable. But I do know that I am where I should be and that all of this is very closely related to my life work.”
She had finished a master’s degree in social work last June, a degree she long sought to give her credentials for the work she had already been doing. She is a natural counselor and had helped other people die. She is a massage therapist, a conservator of the land, a dog lover, a lover of life, a giver. She wanted to give more.
Last summer she got her first social work job at a domestic violence shelter. It was a first step. Even though she loved her man, she had no plans to marry him. He lived isolated on the mountain 30 miles from town. She was involved in the happenings of her community. She had been married before and hurt before. She was holding him at arm’s length
And then, like life is apt to do, everything changed in a moment. She was no longer holding him at at arm’s length. Within a month she quit her job, left her house in the city, and moved to the mountains. She has been his caretaker, his midwife to his journey. He deeded his mountain retreat and home to her so that she would have something when he was gone. He has no children, nor does she.
“We have been nesting like honeymooners,” she said yesterday, “and then he is going to leave.”
She wept. Our phone connection faded and I couldn’t hear her. She moved further up the mountain.
Her pain pierces me, her open heart instructs me. Even though she is in exquisite pain, she is conscious and breathing. She reminded me of the work of Stephen Levine, author of Who Dies, An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying, who instructs people to breathe through their bellies…that’s where people hold their grief, he says.
I began to breathe through my belly, and felt the tears come. She waited. Understanding.
They sought out all the treatment options. He saw the best oncologists. People across the country have been praying. When he visited his sister in New Mexico he saw a healer, who told him to open his heart to the experience, that his body may not be healed, but his spirit will.
My friend says he is slowly disappearing, communicating less and less. She knows the cancer has metastasized to the liver.
“I feel so needy,” she said, a woman not prone to being needy. “I want him to affirm me and to tell me I am the love of his life. But he doesn’t talk.”
“He gave you a mountain,” I say.
“Reminding me of that helps,” she says.
He will leave her alone there. But she is grateful.
“If I thought I was going to be homeless and without a job when this is over, I’m not sure I could stand the stress,” she says
I saw a vision of her speaking before large groups of people, sharing the experience of keeping her heart open while losing the love of her life.
“I knew what this was intellectually,” she said. “But now I know it. Now I can talk about it.”