Opinion: We hold on to the green cotton skirt
When my friend learned that treatments were no longer working and the cancer was spreading throughout her body, she embraced the next and final chapter of her life with grace and equanimity. She had been a teacher and a writer whose great love was to inspire others in their journey of learning. Her last weeks of life held this lesson for me.
During a visit, in early September, we sat at her dining table while she ate a few bites of lunch. She talked about how her body was changing, how the cancer was growing and she was now officially on hospice. She said she had put all her affairs in order including heartfelt conversations with her husband and children. Her candor and directness were not surprising. She had always been a realistic and self-aware woman. With a bit of sadness, she reflected on how she would not be around for Christmas, so she was thinking about early gift giving. She reflected on how she was filled with gratitude for all the love and beauty in her life. “It’s been a very good run.”
She finished by saying she hoped I would help her with a particular, and somewhat daunting, task. “I want to go through my closet.”
With some effort, we got her up the stairs and propped up among pillows on her bed. She pointed to a spot on the bedroom floor and said she wanted me to make three piles: one for throwaways, one for the thrift shop, and one for things she would still wear.
I took out the first item, a well-worn jersey top, and held it up. “Too ratty,” she pronounced. “Throw away.”
The next item was a sundress. She reflected on when and where she bought the dress and how much she enjoyed wearing it. She assessed that it was still in pretty good shape. “Thrift shop.”
And so it went, through many more items. The “save” pile was slight compared to the other two piles: a couple pairs of elastic-waisted pants and two or three cardigans.
Then I got to a light green cotton skirt. She brightened. “I haven’t worn that in years!” she softly exclaimed. “But now that I’ve lost all this weight I think I can wear it again, next spring, when it warms up.”
She pointed to the save pile.
I puzzled over this. Half an hour earlier she spoke about not being around for Christmas. Now she was thinking about wearing a certain item of clothing next spring, a good many months away.
That’s when it struck me. You can hold onto the stark truth of your death for only a few minutes at a time. It’s impossible to look into its dark pool for long periods, so you do so for a few minutes, and then return to living your life, whatever it is at that time. You might read The New York Times and rant at delusional politicians, plan a trip to Florida or to deer camp, or imagine finishing a project. It’s not that doing this is a form of denial about one’s impending death which, most likely, will occur before the next election or setting off on a trip or sewing one more quilt. It’s that our minds, by nature, create the future. Even while death sits in the doorway, we cradle other possibilities. We wait a little longer, for a grandchild to arrive or an anniversary to be celebrated — or the Red Sox to win the pennant. Our beings continue to lean forward, even as we die.
My friend died three weeks after we sorted through her clothing. She didn’t wear the green cotton skirt the following spring. But she had the pleasure of imagining putting it on one more time, wearing it as she walked through town, perhaps stopping to admire newly leafed-out sugar maples and intoxicating lilac bushes.
Priscilla Baker is program director of Hospice Volunteer Services where, since becoming a hospice volunteer in 2003, her experiences with people at the end of life has taught her a little about death and a lot about living.
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