I don’t think about death a lot. It is not part of my daily routine, it doesn’t fill my thoughts. I remember, some years ago, talking with my friend Roma, who is a doctor, and being struck by the ways in which she talked of death. Mainly with her patients. Occasionally she would ‘lose’ a patient, someone whom her healing skills (and she was, and is, a healer in addition to being a mere ‘doctor’) could not save. She spoke of these occurrences with feeling – but I remember thinking that in her job she dealt every day with life and death and everything in between. Whereas I deal with….words primarily. Death does not sit at my table.
But this week it is on my mind. Because of my close friend Carole, my former roommate, who is now in the final stages of a cancer she has been battling for several years. Even now I use the euphemism ‘in the final stages of’ – instead of just coming out and saying, more simply, she is dying. When she was a roommate, she was ambulatory and generally animated, devoting a great deal of energy to the daily preparation of her almost 100% raw vegetable (and veggie juice) anti-cancer diet. And often even more energy to the ideas and issues with which she is and to which she has been passionately committed and involved. Carole is for want of a better term a hardcore environmentalist. When she was physically able, she went out to put her body on the line, standing with others in front of old-growth stands of ancient timber which were slated for clear-cutting by profit-oriented timber companies, protecting other ‘life forms’ by risking her limbs and, so it seemed, at times her life. She speaks passionately about the wholesale massacring of species and habitats by ‘humanity’. Earlier, for years, she lived in the wilds of Gombe national Park in Tanzania, working with and for Jane Goodall and doing field work and research on the beings she loved the most, tribes of wild chimpanzees.
But now, on hospice-care, Carole is weak and bedridden. The painkillers she takes frequently seem to have subdued her. Her energy is low and looking at her, one is reminded a little of what the adjective cadaverous means. Like I say, death is not part of my life. Sitting with Carole, in her company, it feels like we are waiting together for something inevitable that she is dealing with 24/7 but that is more of a stranger to me. But it impacts me as well. We were talking about a movie I went to see several weeks ago – The Rise of the Planet of the Apes – written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, a movie which is very good in general and, in moments, brilliant. A movie which, with its underlying message of the dignity of species, and its specific theme of intelligent ‘apes’ revolting, I know – and knew – would please Carole. When I mentioned it to her and suggested that, if possible, we organize a movie-going expedition (something necessary if you are on hospice bed-care in your final days, as opposed to the simplicity of just doing what ‘most folks’ do, going out to the movies whenever we feel like it or our schedule permits), she perked up. She loved the idea. So we came up with a plan, an afternoon expedition to a nearby theater for the approximate 2 hours it would take. But the plan was put on hold temporarily, possibly permanently, the other day: Carole called me back to tell me that, realistically speaking, it couldn’t happen. She was – is – in too much pain – and too weak – to be able to handle a 2 hour ‘outing’. She just couldn’t do it.
Part of me, the indomitable and irrational optimist, says that health is like a roller coaster, with its peaks and valleys, and that, even when dying, you can bounce back and have a high point in which the reality, as well as the idea, of a 2 hour ‘outing’, is feasible, doable and possible. Another part of me says: nope. Not going to happen. In this lifetime. So I sit here thinking about death and dying. How it impacts and changes the daily routine, le quotidien, el cotidiano, of many. Most of whom I don’t know. But not right now. I know Carole….I know she is dying. And I hope there is a way I can take her to see the movie….just for the joys I know it will bring her.
Did I mention, she is a storyteller? Her stories – which she has written down and, recently, when she was still ambulatory, occasionally told to rapt audiences of both children and adults at local libraries in Southern Oregon, deal with….apes. Chimpanzees. ‘Monkeys’. And some of the amazing, incredible, disturbing and moving things she experienced with them – witnessed – and lived with, in her multiple years in Africa. Carole has also struggled for years against the many and sundry and very real things which prevent storytellers from telling their stories – and prevent many of us from accomplishing the things we truly need wish or want to. Things that author, novelist and screenwriter Steven Pressfield calls, collectively, the ‘Resistance’. Pressfield says, “If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” He’s got a point. And the struggle continues, every day, till the day we stop breathing. The day we die. A day which will come for Carole, my friend and, at times, fellow storyteller, sooner than it will for me.
I don’t know when my death will come, or how. But this morning I am thinking about it. I’m also thinking about The Rise of the Planet of the Apes – and finding a way to get Carole to it, while she is still, to use another metaphor, ‘with us’. But not just for her: for myself, too. While I’m still breathing as well.