This is how I knew that you had died: your husband called me. He used your phone, so I knew to answer the call. I was not surprised to hear his voice instead of yours, since you had missed our last few appointments because you were too fatigued. He told me that you had passed away, just the night before. He seemed collected until I thanked him for calling me, then he started to sob so much that he just hung up the phone.
I am regularly asked things like “How can you handle that work?”, or “What do you do when someone dies?” This letter to one of my former clients is yet another attempt to answer those questions.
Just the week before your husband had called me on your phone to see if I would come to the house to give you a massage. You were too weak to call yourself, he said, and you had family visiting for a while. He felt sure, though, that after they left you would want a massage.
There were many things about you that brought me joy, but one of them was not even you — it was your husband. The way he looked at you. Even when you were half-asleep in a lounge chair, connected to an IV line with your bald head covered by a crooked felt cloche, he looked at you with the purest love and admiration I have ever seen.
There is a story about you that I tell to every class I teach. You came to my office for a massage, and you had been having a rough week. We did a very gentle, slow massage without much movement and lots of attention to being present and breathing. After the massage you asked me what kind of energy work I was doing because you felt something come in and strengthen you. I told you that I don’t do energy work; that I am not trained in that kind of work so I couldn’t claim to be doing it. You grinned at me and said, “Bullshit!” You were right. What you felt was true, even though I had no explanation for it.
I met you first by reading your chart at the cancer treatment center. Your chart was dismal, to be honest. An advanced stage of a notoriously difficult-to-treat cancer, inoperable tumor, one of the nastiest chemo combinations I knew of. But then I met you in person. You were so thrilled by the idea of getting a massage that you grinned through the whole thing. You told me hysterical stories about your family. You knew exactly what you were in for, but still managed to say “I feel like crap today” in a way that sounded like optimism.
Okay, confession time. First: as soon as I met you, I was preparing myself for the idea that you would die soon. There are fantastic, unexplained, miraculous things in the world. I wanted and hoped for this for you — but I also knew the statistics of your kind of cancer. As one of my favorite books says, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
Second: I kept your number in my phone for a long time. Occasionally, as I scrolled through on a data-clearing mission, I would think about deleting it. Most of the numbers I delete are from people I don’t know (or care to know) anymore, so deleting your number felt wrong.
And finally: I don’t remember your name. I remember your face, your laugh, some of the exact details of your treatment and disease progression. I remember that the last time I saw you, you were wearing new jeans and you had trouble getting into your pocket to get the check you had for me. But your name is gone.
I am left, lucky me, with all the joy I got from your spirit, and all the learning I got from your heart.