Ken’s wife died in December. We’ve been running together for four or five years. I didn’t know her well, but I have so many questions about her. We shuffle along on the sidewalks in the dark – catching glimpses of kitchen lights flickering on as others finally get their days started. The darkness gives a blanket of protection with our conversations. Things that are awkward and clunky in the daylight are easier to traverse before the skies turn pink.
But that comfort does not extend to conversations about her death. I didn’t know Sheri well, or her story. I think she liked it that way. She was a quiet soul. Every so often she would show up at a Komen walk, join the team and walk alongside us – quietly in a pink survivor shirt. She was private. Even when she was recognized as one of the “Top 100 Nurses in North Carolina” in 2015, she barely mentioned it. She was a well-regarded lactation nurse helping women all over the county manipulate their breasts to work the magic of nurturing their newborns and pulling them to their chests. I suspect that Sheri’s relationship with her own breasts – her own body – was quite different.
She fought cancer numerous times. Talk at the coffee shop is that she had breast cancer years ago – like 20 years ago. Then there was uterine cancer with surgery and all the heavy chemo thrown at it. One day last fall, Ken swallowed hard before he told me. I already suspected; I heard the hushed tones and the whispers that she wasn’t doing well. Her hair had barely grown back from the last round of chemo. This time, there was cancer in the lining around her stomach – I’ve been blasted with cancer terminology for years but even I didn’t know what that’s called. I just knew it was bad. It wasn’t fair.
Before I knew it, Sheri was back on chemotherapy; I’m not sure she ever got her tastes buds back. Ken talked about it from time to time. She was having fluid drained, pain managed and sending off her files for potential clinical trials. No one took her case. No one thought they could help.
Ken wasn’t consistently out for the morning runs at that time. He was taking care of his bride of 38 years. I understood. But, I had so many questions for him. What do the doctors say? Do they offer a timeline? Is she at peace? Does she think about heaven? Does she have regrets? Does she wish she quit her job? Has she done things for her adult children, so they remember her? For her three grandchildren that she doted on? What advice does she have for those of us that she is leaving behind? Especially for those of us that are living with metastatic breast cancer? Does she talk to God? Is she angry?
Because that’s what I want to know. I want to skip ahead to the end and get a glimpse of what I need to know to live fully until I can’t anymore. Because, on this round of cancer, I’ve been sicker longer than Sheri was. The cancer ran beyond my breast to lymph nodes and bones, and the sac around my heart. Clearly, my body has handled continuous treatments for two and half years, but I still think of my own mortality every morning before I meet Ken at 5:30 a.m.
The last layers of dark don’t allow me to ask those questions. They stall out right on the tip of my lips. Even with my own diagnosis, death is still a forbidden topic locked away in a secret vault that seemingly only clergy and hospice workers can broach. There is no manual for living while dying. I flounder along on my own. My doctors told me if I’m lucky I’ll have five to ten years. I’m at two and a half years and five seems just around the corner. My girlfriends can’t help me – they are planning birthday parties, college visits and promotions. And, I plan these too, but always with a healthy Plan B behind them … for the what ifs.
On my cluttered nightstand, the Bible, books on faith, gardening, healthy eating and an old running journal camouflage a glossy red box that I’m slowly filling with postcards and notes for my family for when I’m gone. In a folder called “My Death” tucked away on my hard drive is a playlist for my funeral and directions for my ashes. A copy of my advanced directive is there to make it easier on my husband when he faces those final decisions. I wonder if anyone will find them in time because right now he can’t handle their existence. He doesn’t want to know that I’ve thought about these issues.
When Ken and I are running along now, I want to ask him if Sheri did these things too. She helped bring so many lives into the world … was it hard to let go? Did she plan for her own funeral? Did she leave notes behind? Did she give instructions on who should get their family nativity or the string of pearls he gave her on their anniversary? Did she pray to God for peace and comfort in those final days? Did she see a therapist? What were her last words? Was it painful? Was she scared? I’m very scared.
And, there is no one to unload this heap of baggage onto. So, I run along beside Ken in the mornings and we bounce along streams of conversation about the latest tennis match, church politics or his golf game — sometimes dipping our toe into deeper conversations like the health of his 90-year old father, moving closer to his grandchildren or the stigma of going on disability – but we do not discuss death. It just hides there in the shadows.
Between gasps for breath and gulps of water, we trudge along. He’s working on strengthening his knee and I’m focused on maintaining the shape I have. We focus our efforts on the here and now because it’s all we know. I wouldn’t want it any other way; I appreciate the morning darkness, the normalcy of our unusual friendship that is cemented in a sense of accomplishment with a little trickle of sweat rolling down my back reminding me that I’m very much still alive. I am still “normal.”
Ken’s wife died in December. I hope I don’t.