She’d been on my mind for days, her face and voice in my thoughts each morning as I sat in silence. I lingered over the photograph her daughter posted on her Facebook page a week earlier: Ann, her face wreathed in smiles, her grandson sleeping peacefully on her chest. It stayed with me, and I sent her a note but messaged her daughter to ask how she was doing. On Friday, I returned home from the “Writing through Cancer” workshop I lead to see the post. Ann passed away that morning.
She wrote with me for years–during treatment and recovery–then in remission, she left the group for a lengthy time, returning last fall with metastatic cancer and her time limited. But Ann, spirited and positive, entered the room each week, always with a smile on her face. She wrote, during those weeks, about the love of family—hers and theirs—and her faith. She was intent on living as fully as she possibly could. She wasn’t going to let cancer get her down. “Cancer, schmancer,” she often said, and so many times as she read her writing aloud, she’d end the piece with a grin and “Ding, dang!” She kept us smiling, but if another group member was struggling, she was quick to offer comfort. She understood, completely.
As the weeks worn on and we began the spring series, the toll cancer was taking on her body was evident, but Ann never complained nor sought sympathy. She was determined to live fully however long she had and be on hand for the birth of her first grandchild, due later in the summer. Near the final weeks of the series, she told us she would miss the next two meetings. A devout Catholic, Ann and her husband were traveling to Lourdes. “I’ve got to buy some time,” she said, “and get some of that water.” When she returned, radiant and smiling, for our final meeting , she presented each of us with a small silver medal from Lourdes–a remembrance of her and how important her faith was to her life.
That morning, we concluded the workshop series as we always do, reading sections from the Navajo Night Chant (dating from 1000 B.C.) aloud, then forming a circle to offer the person next to us our words of gratitude and remembrance:
… May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
…In beauty it is finished.
Ann was standing next to me. I turned to face her and was overcome with emotion. She was a remarkable teacher, showing us all how to live, truly live, with cancer. Right to the final days of her life, she exuded love and life. She was on hand to welcome her grandson into the world and had the entire summer with him and her family and close friends. The smile on her face in the photograph with him nestled to her chest said it all. She loved and was loved by everyone around her.
I thought I could write differently this morning, perhaps quote a few notables on death and dying, but when I was finally able to turn my attention to this post, I had only thoughts of Ann and the other lives I’ve witnessed and shared through the stories and poems written in the “Writing through Cancer” workshops. I doubt I’ve expressed all I feel as I would have liked to—but despite a heavy heart, I feel gratitude. I know why I continue to lead these groups, why I always return home with a full heart after each session. I am humbled and honored to witness the lives of those people writing out of the pain and struggle of cancer. They are my teachers. My life is better—deeper and richer—because of the men and women who share so much of themselves through their writing.
For me, Ann’s death—as others before her—affirms how our lives are intertwined, not only by the shared experience of cancer, but the stories of our whole lives, the tenderness and vulnerability, honesty, tears and laughter. I will miss this brave and loving woman deeply, as all those who knew and loved her will. In beauty it is finished. She exemplified a life full of beauty–faith, hope and love.
In 2008, a different Ann, a poet and writer from my workshops–who would lose her life to cancer in 2012–wrote a poem for one of our members who was in the hospital near death. Her imagery captured the beauty in life and in life passing. In remembrance of Ann, and all those whose lives cancer takes too soon, I offer it again this week.
Outside in the dark
deer are crossing the highway
to drink from the edge of the stream.
It’s quiet here
and you have only hours left
between this life and the next.
As you were once poured
into one vessel, now you
flow forward into the stream
flocked with deer,
their muzzles parting
the silver shimmering veil.
Small cries welcoming you
to the lost fragrant woods…
Moments from now.
(Written by Ann Emerson, 2008)
As you write this week, ask yourself what it means to live, with cancer? Or without? What truly matters to you? What legacy do you want to leave behind? Or, think of someone you’ve known whose life was taken too soon by cancer. What did they teach you?