Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

The Face of Life and Death


A bit over four years ago, in this same city of San Francisco, in the same neighborhood of the Mission, I learned that my mom had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It’s a pesky cancer to find. It hides away in the marrow, breaking down bones and immune system, and doesn’t ever depart until it finishes its deadly work.

The doctors discovered it in my mom when her body and mind started shutting down, and she was rushed to a hospital in Lansing, Michigan — a hospital that I would end up spending many a day and night in back then, and later many more, in 2012-13, when both my parents landed there again from their simultaneous journeys toward death.

Wikipedia explains of this cancer that it “develops in 1–4 per 100,000 people per year. It is more common in men and, for unknown reasons, is twice as common in African Americans as it is in European Americans. With conventional treatment, median survival is 3–4 years, . . . and constitutes 1% of all cancers.”

In 2012-13, we kept joking, in that Jewish-joke spirit of laughing at ones’ own sorrows as a way to deal with them, “What are the odds? Probably greater than winning the lottery, and we get this?!” One has to laugh as well as sob and circle through more emotions than seem possible during the dying and grieving process. The lottery that my parents won wasn’t pleasant: my mom got a rare cancer (and rarer still for her gender and geographic/racial background) and my dad contracted a rare disease, severe West Nile, from a tiny mosquito.

They didn’t win, of course. They lost their respective lives — casualties, like so many others, of diseases largely caused, in greater and greater odds, by the ecological devastation of capitalism, with its toxic landscape and climate change.

In my dad’s case, he suffered far too long through the no-win situation of existing on the growth industry of life-support technologies, dying on May 16, 2013 — a date that I’ll be marking in Michigan at the caring hospice where he breathed his last.

My mom, though, beat the odds. She won a lot of “extra” life that she wasn’t supposed to get — stretching from March 2010 to October 3, 2013.

Sure, Wikipedia was right, and my mom only lived another 3-plus years after her cancer made its presence known. But when I flew from San Francisco in March 2010 to her hospital bed in Lansing, Michigan, several doctors and about a half-dozen nurses immediately pulled me out of my mom’s room to say: “Do you have siblings? Get them here now. You also need to prepare your dad; he doesn’t seem to want to admit that your mother is near death. She probably won’t survive more than a few days.”

A few days later, after staring at her pale-gray skin and closed eyes, after watching what seemed to me then like the grim reaper doing its work, my mom slowly began to reemerge. Or rather, she awoke with a smile. She let my niece put this cardboard crown on her head and giggle mischievously at her grandma, who smiled and laughed in return, even if weakly. I snapped this photo. My mom smiled up at me, saying she didn’t remember why she was in the hospital, and when I told her we’d been worried she was about to die, she laughed that off too.

She pretty much kept that joy at life on her face for much of the next 3-plus years, through way too many difficult moments that torn my heart and spirit into thousands of tiny, scattered pieces, and erased my own ability to smile with any genuine feeling. She did this not because she took all the loss that she was forced to grapple with these past few years lightly — the loss of her health, husband, home, and independence, among others — but instead because she’d learned throughout her life, filled with as much hardship as good times, that to survive meant to choose to thrive. To choose life. Like Henry David Thoreau, she choose “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” — even if her own marrow was steadily murdering her.

Today is seven long-short months since my mom died — October 3, 2013, to May 3, 2014. I still haven’t gotten used to the fact, and won’t ever, that I’ll never see her in person again. One doesn’t “get over” death.

A few days ago, by accident, I ran across this picture of her, near death yet closer than ever to life. She smiled her way out of childhood trauma and adult disappointments. She smiled her way out of dying when the doctors and nurses gave up on her in 2010, and then grief over my dad in 2012. She smiled at some cousins when they visited her in her assisted-living-turned-hospice room about a week before she died — so much so that they called later to say we must be wrong, that she seemed well and couldn’t be dying. And she smiled up at me just before she fell into the unconsciousness that she’d never really wake from again as she definitively drifted into the grim reaper’s hands on October 3, 2013. It was what gave her strength and hope.

In hindsight, it’s also what she passed on, freely, generously, to others.

When I stumbled unexpected on this photo, I literally felt a jolt through my body. I realized how much my own marrow has, at this seven-month anniversary, absorbed her spirit, her presence, this hope. I was able to instantly smile back at her, looking into her photo eyes, and feel a sense of possibility, of life, that I haven’t really been able to experience for many months or even the past couple years. Her smile did its work on me, cutting through my numbness and forced smiles, making memory, with each passing month, a more bearable friend.

Love keeps giving, even from the grave.

*  *  *

If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photo of my mom in a Lansing, Michigan, hospital room, March 26, 2010.)


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This entry was posted on May 3, 2014 by in Dispatches from Life.
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