Goodbye & Heart~forward

Dear Liz,

The first time we met in person, I was astonished because you knew my name as soon as I walked in the door. We’d talked on the phone already. During our phone conversation about the young adult group at Callanish, you asked if I had any questions. I asked if it was OK if I wore a hat or a wig. You said I could wear whatever I wanted. It must have seemed like an odd question, but it was an important one to me. My hair had only fallen out a few days prior, and at the same time I was worried about people knowing I had cancer I was also worried about fitting in with the cancer kids and I thought that meant I had to go bald, even though that seemed totally terrifying. I was glad to have you reassure me that I could come as I pleased, with anything or everything or nothing on my head, and that people came all kinds of ways.

The second time we met I couldn’t quite figure out if you and Janie were the same person or two people or who was who. I didn’t want to ask, because this time you remembered my name and some details about me, and I didn’t want to seem silly not remembering which face belonged to which voice. I said something about how being young and having breast cancer f*cking sucked. You looked back at me with those deep and soulful eyes, and you told me you were in your late twenties when you were diagnosed with your first bout of cancer. Like me. Suddenly, you were credible. I know it was you, and not Janie, because your hair had the slightest tinge of red and your skin the unmistakable tone only a redhead bears. Like me. 

One time I came to Callanish to pick up one of the many items I had forgotten at Brew Creek. Janie was there, but by then I could distinguish you two. “Oh!” she cried, “you must go and show your stop motion worry dolly video to Liz! She was so sad to have missed it!” I thought it was kind of silly, this silly little stop motion I made with my little worry doll, among the trees and creeks at Brew Creek. But you were so excited, and we stood in the little kitchen and you wore a striped apron, and I handed you my cell phone and pressed play, and you watched intently and smiled really big. You loved it. The way you looked up at me when the little video finished told me so. You made me feel so visible.

Another time, I came to Callanish to make some art with Gretchen. It smelled divine. You were baking cookies. We were late, and you must have left for the ferry. But you left a little plate with freshly baked cookies on it for us.

There were so many sweet gestures like this. Cookies on a plate. Smiles after a video. A knowing look from one redhead to another. A nod.

When I heard you had been diagnosed yet again, I thought to myself what the fuck. Too much for one person. Too fucking much. I was angry because I’d been recently exposed to all those quacks who want to blame cancer on stress, or on limited personal work, or on not living life well. Fuck you all, I thought, here’s proof: someone who is so in touch with their heart and soul, she supports other people getting in touch with their heart and soul.

I saw you again, and I can’t recall when. Perhaps it was sometime about a year ago now, sometime last spring or in the early summer, while I was waiting for the babies to be born. You leaned against the counter as I poured a cup of tea, and you asked about them, about the surrogate, a sweet slow smile forming on your face when I reported back the latest news. It meant so much to me to hear your questions, to know that you remembered, to be acknowledged as an expectant mother even though my babies were growing in someone else’s uterus. It meant so much to me that even as though you faced your most serious cancer diagnosis yet, you still asked. It awed me.

I don’t really know what to say. When my friend Aimee forwarded me the email that didn’t show up in my inbox, I couldn’t quite believe it. I can’t imagine you not baking cookies and leaving them on countertops, or greeting me with a hug when I walk into Callanish. I didn’t know you well but I did spend some deep and heartfelt moments with you, and I sure felt the kindness and the sweet love vibes that you put out into the world. It seems so strange to know you’re not here anymore, to know you are, quite simply, gone. 

This heartbreak that fills my body is the hard part of being part of this community. Knowing you, knowing and loving people in a community that is by definition, made up of people wrestling with their mortality, a group of people who by definition, can’t all survive.

It seems like it all happened to quickly, Liz. Diagnosed again, and then hard, and then hopeful. Somewhere I read something you wrote, and I breathed a sigh of relief because you were hopeful, because it was working. But I guess it stopped working. And before I even knew your dear ones were holding vigil with you, you were gone. My heart felt like it was pulled from my chest. I wish I could have lit a candle, I wish I had known, I wish, I wish, I wish. Mostly I wish death wasn’t a think we all have to face. Or at least, I wish we could all face it together at the same time. But that isn’t how it works. 

But then I realized there’s not a rule about when you’re allowed to light a candle for someone.  So I lit a candle for you. You’re here, in the sweet flutter of leaves on breeze on this hot California afternoon. You’re here, all around, giving.

We are just so intensely fragile. Our bodies only here on this earth for a fraction of time. Here, and then gone. Our fragility is so striking. We try to ignore it, to pretend we don’t know we will expire, to go about our days as though we are as long lasting as our plastic water bottles. Our plastics will long outlive us. Today, we have all outlived you Liz, and that feels so unfair. They say you were in a state of utter grace, total love, of acceptance. I desperately wish you hadn’t had to accept this. But you did it anyway. What graciousness.

And so what? I want to live like this, graciously accepting that which is, finding peace and serenity even in the toughest of moments. Liz, you remind me to live with my heart forward. I’ve been thinking about standing up straighter lately, and how when I stand up straighter my heart is more forward and open, and I feel more open and raw and honest. So for you Liz, because of the way you lived your life, because of your sweet presence, I’m going to notice my posture. Heart forward. Shoulders back. Open, raw, honest. Wide open to the world, wide open to receive, wide open to give.

You will be so missed. My heart breaks for your children, for those who loved you, for the many who needed you. But I know they too, are resilient because of you, and I know you will surround them, wrap your arms around them, be present in the fluttering of leaves on the summer breeze.

Thank you for caring for me.




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