My Thoughts on Living and Leaving
By Ann D. Alley
Before I go, I want you to know that I am having the time of my life.
On June 19, 1987, after many tests and a biopsy, my pulmonary specialist called at 7:45 a.m., to tell me that I have cancer of the lining (pleura) of the left lung. I had just awakened when the telephone rang. At first I thought I might be having a horrible nightmare or that he had made a mistake. As he continued to explain that this cancer was something called mesothelioma and that it is inoperable and untreatable, it dawned on me that this was indeed a nightmare - but also my reality. He asked me if I had any questions, and of course I was not prepared with a list of questions. Later in the day, and especially as I talked with some of my family, and closest friends, the questions presented themselves. He had said that he didn’t know how much time I have left. I was thankful for that . Later on in time I was even more thankful, as I didn’t want any limitations placed on my newly developing plans and goals, of which this booklet became.
It just happened that on that same day , June 19, my good friend Tonia came to clean my home. I told her the latest developments in what had been four months of question marks. She left a wake of forgotten small tasks that day. All day I was too stunned to cry and she thought it was bravery.
The reason I am writing this booklet is that, in the days that followed, while making my calls, I found myself comforting others who were not ashamed to cry about my news. I also began to receive calls from other people who had played some kind of role in my life; among them the sweet wife of an ex-boss I had left three years ago. She explained that she had dreaded making the call, as she thought it would be terribly difficult and depressing. Instead, she said, she felt uplifted. She suggested that I write down my thoughts, many of which I had shared with her. I reflected on this and decided it might be a good idea and it was cinched when I went to see my doctor. He had suggested that I take a part-time job, feeling that it would take my mind off of “the big C.” I told him “Forget it. Working half of my week and trying to recover from the work the other half is not my idea of fun. Besides, ” I told him, “I have too much to do. I’m planning to write a booklet called Before I go” He agreed that it would be a good idea and perhaps his other patients could benefit from it.
The more I thought about it, the better the idea seemed. Also, about two months before, I had received not one, but two catalogs featuring the video writer which I am now using. I didn’t see how I was going to swing paying for a machine which would cost me approximately $650. I put it all in God’s hands and guess what? Three people expressed their desire to help pay for it and I allowed them to do it. I told myself it had to be right, my writing the booklet. So I started.
Thought: Placing the situation in God’s hands. This would be difficult to do if you didn’t believe in God. My belief is that we are putting the situation in the hands of the “God within,” which might also be viewed as taking responsibility for what happens in our lives. Here’s a “for instance” : I had always said that I didn’t want to grow old enough to be in a “rest” home. Wish granted. I had always said that I didn’t want anybody cutting into my “bod.” Wish granted. I always said if I ever had cancer I wouldn’t want radiation or chemotherapy. Wish granted.
Thought: I feel privileged to be given the information concerning my death before it happens. How many people can say that? I have been given the opportunity to “clean my slate” before I “graduate” from Planet Earth. This includes telling the world about my situation in order that I can express to others and others can express to me. How many times have people said “If I had only known”? It is amazing and rewarding how many people have expressed their love for me. You see, this enables all of us to clear our conscience, if there is anything to be cleared, before I go. It has also given those wonderful people , who always seem to want to make others happy, the opportunity to do something nice: the beautiful receptionist at the place where I had worked for only one month, the lovely lady who cuts my hair (every couple of months), and a former boss all expressed their desire to be their for me, no matter what time of day or night, if I needed someone to talk to.
Then there’s the old “glass-half empty or half-full” cliché. When you have been given this opportunity, you can do many things which you have always wanted to do. These are fun things, as well as duties to be performed. This is the time to nurture yourself and let others nurture you. One of my dearest friends remembered how much I like her chicken soup. She brought me over some of her “Mother Debbie’s chicken soup.” For those of us who are nurturers this can be difficult; many of us have been self -sufficient all of our lives but now we can allow others to do for us. The simple act of picking up a half-gallon of milk for me gave a friend of mine pleasure (and I thought I had imposed on her). In the past I would have said “Oh no, I can pick it up myself.” This same lady helped to pay for the video writer I’m using. People are so happy to do their part in making your life easier. What a lesson this has been for me.
This is our opportunity, too, to be whatever we have missed being. For me, it was being a little girl. I was given responsibilities very early in life; I felt as if I had missed out on being a little girl. I am now buying that same little girl candies, ice cream; I have allowed her to stay up late, to sleep late; I am being kind to her, just as I would like to have been treated as a child. I, who grew up without sweets, am now enjoying them. A friend brought me a little doll dressed up as a candy-stripper. I have sat that little doll on my lap so that we can both watch TV. You may think that sounds silly, but in nurturing my little girl, I am loving my adult self. I was treated to a new toy. This video writer I’m using has given me many happy hours, taking my mind off of my “situation.” It will feel much better to exit after loving myself. A friend suggested that loving oneself is selfish. Not so. Loving oneself and selfishness are not interchangeable.
And talking about nurturing , the Sunday after I had been given the news by my doctor I was fixing my breakfast when it occurred to me that I was eating some leftovers which I would never have served to any good friend so I threw them out and treated to only fresh, tasteful food. My thoughts then moved another step: I should move my fine china into the kitchen and use it every day. What a treat! Having done this, the good silverware followed. Talk about feeling elegant!
I continued to be nice to myself. I brought out a poem which a friend of mine had written about me eleven years ago. At the time she wrote it I thought “She is writing about the person I’ve always wanted to be.” Now, as I look back, I think that just maybe I have earned that poem (when had I changed?) so I framed it and gave it prominence in order that every now and then, in passing, I would see these words and learn to believe in myself.
The night after the doctor gave me the devastating news I happened to be alone all evening. At about 11:00 p.m. I walked out to my balcony and looked at an unusually clear sky, thinking, as I saw the stars, “Sometime soon I’ll be up there” That’s when a feeling of peace descended and I became unafraid.
I have been amazed at how many people care about my departure. A psychiatrist called me “brave.” I don’t think I’m brave; brave is when you’re afraid to do something and go ahead and do it. I can’t take any credit as I’m not afraid.
I have learned, too, during this time, to take pleasure in those duties which, in the past, I had found distasteful . In the beginning I made a conscious effort to “enjoy” what I was doing. By “consciously “ my tasks all day long I found that the day took care of itself and turned out to be a happy one. I don’t know when it stopped being a conscious effort and I really began to enjoy every task. Now I don’t “have” to do my dishes immediately after I eat. I do something else which I enjoy. After that I return to the kitchen and by then it is especially fun to wash and dry my good china, as I love looking at it and touching it. Thus my days are filled with joyful things. Also, if I feel a little tired I lie down to rest, however long it takes to restore my strength and bring back my enthusiasm for the job at hand. This is getting ridiculous. Would you believe that in this “joyful” frame of mind I cleaned out my oven? What a sicko.
Thought: Allow people their sadness about your departure. One of my dear friends taught me that. As she was sad and weepy I said “Don’t be sad.” She informed me that she couldn’t stop being sad just because I said she should stop. By telling her not to be sad I was negating her love for me. So now, whenever anyone expresses their sadness I thank them and I comfort them.
It is important to observe the beginning of new life. I love African violets and have been growing them for about fifteen years. It’s fun to plant the leaves and watch them develop into full grown plants. Recently, when they needed repotting, some of the leaves broke off. I’ve never had the heart to throw away a broken leaf, so after repotting the violets I was left with about seven broken leaves. Instead of throwing them out I decided to start new plants for my friends, especially those who admire my violets. It gives me a good feeling to watch these little miracles. They’re a long ways from becoming full grown plants and I’ll probably lose a couple, but it feels good to know that there is new life starting in my home.
One of the positive things that I am experiencing at this time is that I see everything with “new” eyes. This is the way I felt when I first began to paint. I began to notice different colors in everything. Nothing is one solid color. Even a chair which is painted all the same color is really different hues because of shading and highlights. When I first started painting it was all I could think of, sort of like being in love. Now I look at everything and everyone both as if it were my first, and also my last time.
People can’t believe me when I tell them that I’m enjoying life more than I ever have before. It’s because instead of dwelling on my condition, I am taking time to savor everything while I can. Those things which I have always taken for granted have become special events. I have also found that happiness is not something you can look forward to, nor does it depend on where you’re going or where you’re coming from, but it does depend on how you approach what is happening in the now, which is the only thing that is real.
I have discovered that, if I read or watch something funny before going to bed, I feel much more peaceful than if I watch, or listen to the news. It used to be that I had my bedroom radio set on a news station all the time. Now it’s too upsetting; I watch “Taxi.” It’s so silly! When I went in to have a biopsy done, the doctor explained to me that at certain times he would tell me to take a deep breath and hum; I asked him, “In what key?” I’m sure he forgave my corny sense of humor and it made me feel better.
I have discovered that I am a night person . Now that I have the choice, I prefer to stay up late and getup late, instead of getting up at 6:00a.m. as I had done all of my life.
Things I’ll miss: I love the texture of raw cashews as I crunch them; Hispanic love songs; the beautiful view from my third-story apartment; the recent beautiful, summer days with huge clouds and blue skies; my nephew Carl playing the piano while I cook and sing my heart out. Most of all, I’ll miss all the dear people I love.
Helpful: I went back twenty-five years and put all of my snapshots in chronological order, in albums. This gave me an opportunity to review my life. I shed many tears, but when I finished I felt complete. As of this writing I am duplicating some tapes I did in the early 70’s with my guitar, which I will give to a few of my loved ones. Nothing professional, mind you, just a reminder of my love for them, mistakes and all.
I found that it’s alright to cry with my family and my friends. (remember, it’s always more difficult for those left behind.) lately, I have received so much love that I feel as if I am underneath a very warm sea and all the water around me and above me is the love and devotion that people express. What a way to go!
Redundant thoughts: It’s so strange, the way things from my childhood are now popping up. I ca still hear my mother telling me to wear clean panties just in case I should be involved in an accident in the street. Did your mother tell you the same thing?
I can’t help thinking of the things I won’t have to do any longer. Do I still need to watch my cholesterol? Prevent cavities? Paint the bathroom? (Gosh, I hope I don’t come back as a paintbrush.) I was walking along the other day on my way to have a sonogram done and I saw a man spit and it went ‘way out. I always wondered, when I was very young, if I could accomplish such a feat. I ended up with dribble all over my chin.
The other day my brother and I went out, drank some beer and ate some tacos “like in the old days.” He allowed me to steal a water goblet, watching for the waiter while I dropped it in my handbag. If I know Henry, he left a tip large enough to pay for the table, but he allowed me to have my fun.
Along the same lines I see the humor in different situations. For instance, the other day I was putting on a pair of panty hose. I had both sides up as far as my ankles, then I had to laugh as I wondered what I would do if someone yelled “Fire!” Then there was the day I was so distracted that I applied deodorant to only one side. I chuckle over small things like that.
A friend gave me a cute little “Snoopy” picture which I stuck on the back of my front door. It said “F___ it.” Of course I had to put a yellow Post It over it out of respect for those persons who wouldn’t approve. Why do we worry ourselves so about what other people think, when Earth is only a flyspeck in the Universe? Pretty soon these issues will no longer exist for me.
Something that bothers me: People that do not take the opportunity to express themselves. They deny your departure because the can’t handle it. I’m informing everyone whose life I’ve touched in some way (as you’re getting ready to exit you become aware of how many there are.) There are a very few people who treat me like a child and say, “You’re going to be alright. The doctors probably made a mistake. Don’t worry” or “let’s not talk about it.” better yet, when I was asked how I was, I told someone that I was having pain. She said, “Oh dear, maybe it’s your imagination.” What an insult! Saying this may take their mind off of what is happening to me, but I’ve always faced problems squarely and cannot begin to imagine what it would feel like to delude myself about anything. I suppose that facing life squarely is why Planet Earth was not my idea of fun and am now able to accept leaving it. I have asked those who are closest to me not to avoid the subject of death, cancer and especially my situation. It offends me to think that I am not allowed to discuss what is uppermost in my mind. Besides, this is a pretty heavy load to carry alone.
Speaking of leaving, on the way out I bumped into myself and discovered the person I had always wanted to be. It feels good to finally like the me that I became. Well, gotta go now. I hope I get a bon voyage party. Bye, Bye.