Checking in

I don’t really have anything to say.

No, that’s not true. I have lots to say. LOTS. It’s piling up in notes on scraps of paper, and emails to myself, and half-written drafts. I am standing in an autumn storm of ideas – bright leaves swirling about my head, making me dizzy. Which one to grab next? Oops – grabbed two – let go, two is too many, grab another – no, not that one, how about that one? – No, too big for right now.

That’s how it is. Until I turn away, drift over to the Reader, drown myself in the words written by others – so talented, such interesting lives / ideas / problems, so dedicated and so damn disciplined about meeting deadlines – what can I possibly say that’s worth hearing inside of all that?

I cut back my Prozac dose. Sick of depending on drugs to function. So am I depressed?

Prozac makes you fat. There have to be better ways to deal with depression.

So what have I actually done just lately? I have read a lot of books. Most of them were pretty bad, but there were a few good reads and a couple of real gems.

I have spent time with my friend, keeping her company as she continues to take step after slow, steady step into the Valley of the Shadow. It looks like she will still be with us for Thanksgiving, but Christmas? Hard to say. I hope that the end, when it comes, is in keeping with the gentle dignity of her spirit. For now, she says the pain isn’t bad. She enjoys and actively participates in the life she still has. I helped her rescue a cat the other day – a sweet, skinny stray who managed to spend a few days in our guest bathroom without getting eaten, before I could hand her off to a rescue.

Himself brought home another stray dog, and we’re fostering her for the rescue we founded. Apart from that, I am maintaining my Retired From Rescue status. Burnout is a bitch, and although it’s been most of a year I’m still not ready to get back into that particular frying pan!

Koeitjie
Koeitjie – “Little cow”. She is an absolute sweetheart, and just a pup, who has clearly been well loved. How does a dog like this end up dumped?

Work continues on the veggie garden. Most of the effort lately has been by Himself and a helper, but I am the Inspirational Driving Force, plus when Himself finishes doing one last tractorly sweep of the area I will start building raised beds. Maybe next year I will actually succeed in producing the cornucopia of produce that dances across my dreams every spring! (No, I don’t know whether cornucopias dance, but probably they don’t. Yes, I’m aware that, in that case, that’s a mixed metaphor. I don’t care.)

I have been doing a lot of thinking about God and the Bible and Stuff, and my thoughts are finally coalescing into something I can write about.

Right now I am gearing up for NaNo. Because, when you are struggling to get moving, the best thing to do is to attach a rocket to your arse. So, three days to countdown, and them BOOM! … I hope.

Your turn! Please talk to me.
Do you ever find yourself stuck and overwhelmed by too many choices? How do you get traction? Are you doing NaNo this year?

How to talk to my friend who is dying

My friend is dying. The doctors have given up on chemotherapy and switched to “palliative care”. They say she may have six months, but really they don’t know how long it will be.

It has been so hard to know how to talk to her.

Two girls sit on the bench against the backdrop of the mountains

Several years ago, when she told me the breast cancer was back and had metastasized to her bones, I didn’t want to be the kind of person who avoids difficult conversations and blocks people from expressing themselves by trying to keep everything nice. So I jumped in with both feet and asked how she felt about dying, and we talked about that a bit, but it turns out there isn’t a lot to say on the subject.

The years passed and she continued to be active in our church and to volunteer for a free clinic serving our community, and she started helping at the local Cancer Center (she still volunteers there). She quit running, but she still walks almost every day. She lost weight (although she’s always been thin, so it wasn’t that obvious) and gained two attractive wigs. (She doesn’t need them any more, but she told me the other day that she quite missed the convenience of using a wig. Her hair is still very thin, and it annoys her to have to get it cut.)

I got used to the fact that she was sick, and although I loved the respite of quiet afternoons drinking tea in her immaculate, dog-free home, I saw her rarely. I checked in every now and then to make sure she was okay, and she was always busy and contented. But I avoided visiting her because it didn’t feel right to talk to her about the anger and frustration I felt as I got more and more engaged in dog rescue … because, after all, she was dying. In the face of that unyielding fact, the chaotic jungle of my life didn’t seem important enough to share.

Then, as my life spiraled further out of control, I simply did not have the capacity to help shoulder her burden. This year I hardly contacted her at all. (I don’t know why I thought shouldering her burden was my job.)

A few weeks ago I called her. She was glad to hear from me, she said, but she was too busy to visit that week. “I’ve just had people in and out non-stop,” she explained. Her sons visiting, with their families. Her sister. A steady stream of friends. Her sons again. And the folk from Hospice.

Hospice?

“Yes, I’m in Hospice care now.”

And suddenly it hit me. This is real. A day is coming, in the very near future, when the sun will come up, and set again, and in between there will be weather and traffic and conversations, but my friend will be gone.

I went to see her after her visitors had left. I took her some eggs, new laid by our hens, and nectarines off our tree. I was so scared – of what she would look like, of how I would hide my reaction if she looked like someone who was dying. I wondered what we would talk about, and reminded myself that I would encourage her to speak freely and openly about what she was going through.

She was sitting in her front garden when I arrived. Free of chemo, her hair has grown back, and there was a glow of color in her face. She was radiant.

I sat down, and asked her how she was doing. The pain is bad sometimes, but she takes meds when she needs to. It’s hard to sleep, but she has an iPad, and she spends the long nights reading emails and Facebook and checking in with friends. She’s given up driving because she doesn’t think it’s safe, with the drugs. She’s sad that she can no longer travel to other parts of the state to watch her grandsons compete in athletic events, because it’s just too hard to spend hours at a stretch in a car. She is getting lots of visitors, and although sometimes they stay too long, she loves having people around.

I told her that if ever she wanted company without having to make conversation, I’d be glad to bring my laptop to her home and simply be there. Her face lit up, and she told me she had just bought a big, comfy easy chair and installed it in her bedroom, for precisely that purpose.

Our conversation lagged into silence. I felt helpless and tongue-tied. It seemed self-indulgent to complain of the bleak wasteland my life had become toward the end of last year, and selfish to chatter about the tender green shoots that are emerging as I enter a new phase of my life. But… there’s only so much you can say about dying.

Then her phone rang. She glanced at it, clicked her tongue, and told me about an annoying problem she was having – calls from companies wanting to sell her “death stuff”. She wondered what contact list of terminally ill people they’d bought or hacked into. That triggered a memory of a telephone scam I had recently evaded – a too-good-to-be-true offer of a free cruise that culminated in a request for my credit card details.

Little by little, our conversation picked up. We agreed that neither of us was much interested in going on a cruise, and I told her about the cruise ships that annoyed me when Himself and I were visiting Alaska. She told me about her trip to Alaska a few years back, and how disappointed she’d been not to see a glacier because the weather was bad the day they were supposed to go. “I’d like to go back,” she said.

“Ja, me too,” I said. And then we were silent for a while, and I thought about what she’d just said. Because, of course, she’s not going anywhere. And then I thought about the glaciers I had seen, and about their pure, perfect blue that is like looking into God’s eye. And I thought about where she would, in fact, be going – and I remembered that there would surely be glaciers there, and every imaginable and unimaginable other kind of beauty, all shining in the direct light of God’s eye.

Alaskan Glacier

And that’s when I finally got it. There is no topic I can’t raise with her that we wouldn’t have discussed five years ago. Yes, she will soon be moving on. Yes, it’s scary, especially as the transition is likely to be painful. But she has made her preparations, and is confident of her destination. And right now she is still most emphatically alive.

I will visit her soon and let the conversation meander where it will.

There’s a hole in my bucket

I’ve been pondering mortality quite a lot lately. The remorseless, inescapable advance of that final deadline.

I don’t mind dying so much. Sometimes I’ve even wish I could just get on and be done with it – turn my back on disappointment, loss, failure … get out of the way of those who might make better use of the space I take up. This whole business of being human … I just don’t seem to be very good at it.

But the thought of dying without having fully lived … now that bites. When I was a teenager I wrote a poem … I don’t remember how it went (it’s tucked away in a brown plastic file with all my other juvenile outpourings, I have no idea where) but I clearly remember how I felt when writing it. We were living in a little old house in a suburb outside Johannesburg, and my parents spent their days slaving away at rebuilding that house into their dream home, while also establishing their own business from home. They were busy and stressed, and they bickered constantly. And I looked at their lives, and shuddered at their boring middle-classness, and wrote something that began “I shall never fall to this / The final degradation”.

And … kyk hoe lyk sy nou.

So I’ve been sort of flailing about, in between moments of pondering, which themselves are interspersed with long periods of staring into space, in between tunneling through books like an express train, and somewhere in the course of all this I stumbled upon David Cain‘s blogs about bucket lists.

old wooden well

I have always LOVED making lists. You can spend hours sorting them and organizing them and updating them. Sometimes you even get to cross things off them, although usually, having been written and organized and color-coded, the list is then filed away and forgotten. BUT you get to feel really good about having made it. It feels almost as good as actually doing something.

Anyway, I decided to make a bucket list. For the past week, the only item actually on the bucket list was “Write a bucket list”. This morning I quit pondering and wrote down the rest of it. And frankly I’m perturbed.

It is so very short. And so largely mundane. What happened to the girl who wanted to go everywhere, know something about everything, have adventures, take on the world, and never get tied down? I could make the list longer, of course, just by adding a whole lot of cool stuff. But I while I was writing it, I was asking myself, “When I’m dying, will I care whether or not I achieved this? And do I actually believe I CAN achieve it?”

Well, it appears that I’ve morphed into someone who really and truly would rather get caught up on filing than walk the streets of Samarkand.

I need to know … is this what it means to “grow up”? Or to give up?