As an English teacher, I always was interested in the concept of foreshadowing, the hint of what is to come that an author places in a work. And because art imitates life, there are daily examples of such premonitions, intuitions, signs, or omens. We often speak of “gut feelings,” even when we can’t logically explain why we have them. And so, imagine my surprise when I recently went through my document folder and found this little short story that I wrote on Oct 22 of last year. I think I was working on Angelique’s War at the time. It isn’t unusual for me to write something completely off topic just to get the creativity flowing again during those moments of writer’s block. But what strikes me as eerie, although purely coincidental, is the subject matter, the vocabulary that I used. Goodness, gracious, I had no idea how sick I was at the time, how too close for comfort this story would feel. Prophecy or chance? You tell me! And yes, I most certainly am praying for a different ending.
”Peaceful, they say, whatever the cause. When your heart stops, your brain smothers from lack of blood, removing all matter of conscious thought with it. It is like sleeping, they say: you drift off into a beautiful slumber, as you are carried off by the seductive power of pure white light. And only then do you truly understand the meaning of life.”
Marie had penned these words in her journal during that first sleepless night following her diagnosis. She had discovered the lump in the shower one morning and it surprised her. It was as though this pea sized alien had decided to take up residence in her body overnight and as she pressed against it, she thought she felt it signal back to her in recognition. The idea made her laugh out loud, but in the end, good sense prevailed and she made an appointment for a mammogram before she was completely towel dried. It took two excruciating weeks of testing and waiting until she got the dreaded phone call from the nurse, asking her when it would be convenient for her to come in and chat with the doctor. At that point, she knew what he would say, without the official medical terminology. She had lived enough of life to know that good news is delivered with a cheerful phone call, while bad news always requires face to face contact. Empathy 601. It is a requisite course for all doctors prior to completing their residency. Some learn it better than others.
The subsequent months had been rough for Marie. There is a reason why it is called “battling for your life” because it requires the zeal and courage of a soldier fighting a war. Between the painful surgeries and energy-sapping treatments, Marie had combat fatigue. But like a brave warrior, committed to the cause, she had a strength that astounded us, her friends and family. Forever the optimist, Marie referred to the terminal cancer as a gift. She vowed to embrace life and the people whom she had grown to love in that way only she could. And she looked forward to a few final adventures. “Millions of people die suddenly every day,” she would say, “without the opportunity to make quick work of the bucket list.” And she set out to make the most of every single remaining moment.
“I am living a Garth Brooks song,” she teased as she strapped on the ice skates. “What’s the worse thing that can happen? If I break my neck, I will save the doctors all the time and effort it takes to poke and prod my body twice a week. Although I might not object to a different kind of poking.” She laughed with that loud trademark laugh of hers, and we couldn’t help but giggle along with her. But she didn’t break her neck. She stepped out onto the ice, tentatively at first, and then took off with the beauty and form of an Olympic athlete. “I can skate,” she exclaimed, “who knew? Wish I would have tried this years ago. I might have given Tonya Harding somebody else to take a whack at.” And with that, she sped off, with the wind blowing her multi-colored head scarf in different directions. That was beautiful Marie. Her wicked sense of humor always made her special, but in her dying days, she radiated pure joy.
When the doctors announced that the disease had progressed to stage 4, they began to talk in terms of “time left.” Marie chuckled as she pulled out her phone and opened the calendar app. “Give me a date so that I can slap it in my smarty pants phone. I don’t want to mess up my appointment with St. Peter. Besides, I will need to get my wig fluffed that week. I don’t want to enter heaven with a ratty mess on my head,” she said. The doctors, who were accustomed to her irreverence shook their heads and smiled knowingly.
One morning, two months before what Marie called “her date with destiny,” she got into her car and drove to St. Aloysius Cemetery Number 2. She had done this with some regularity during those months, claiming that she was “scoping out the neighborhood.” And indeed these cities of the dead were very much a place for the living, who came to visit their loved ones. She walk would among the bronzed markers and bid Mrs. Demares a good morning. She would pause and whisper a little prayer at the tiny grave of Baby Hebert. She loved to stop among the various plaques to see what had been left there by loved ones who had come to visit. She gently up righted a pot of plastic petunias left for Grandma Jones And she smiled as the wind passed through the chimes at Joe Miller’s final resting place, sending melodic music into the quiet of the sacred ground. She laughed at the jar of pickles resting against Sandra Benoit’s tomb, wondering if Mrs. Benoit’s family thought she might have a sudden craving for gherkins as she rested in peace. She greeted the inhabitants of this place of mourning as she would neighbors on her morning walk. And soon enough, she found the spot at the very edge of the cemetery, marked with a shiny new panel with her own name and birthdate recently engraved on it. She sat on the ground and leaned against the marker. Pulling a banana out of her purse, she slowly peeled it and took a bite. She looked around, surveying the other inhabitants of the place that was to soon become her new home. “Yes,” she said out loud, “this will do nicely.”
“Peaceful, they say, whatever the cause.” And this was certainly true for Marie. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, we gathered around her bed as we watched her chest slowly rise and fall. She was beautiful and harmonious with her eyes closed in sleep, and when she opened them to look at us one last time, she smiled. “Be happy,” she whispered, her dying wish for us all. And in an instant, just like that, she was gone. The void felt palpable as though you could reach out and touch the empty place that she left in our lives.
There is a tree now which shades the spot where Marie’s mortal body resides for all eternity And there is a weathered pair of ice skates that hang from her tombstone. But her soul and her spirit? Those are in a special place, one where Marie has learned the meaning of life. And in the quiet moments, I can still hear her laughter. It is music to my ears.