Elizabeth Edwards' passing really hit me hard. I was trying to think about why I would be feeling so bad about a woman I had never met and then it hit me. It's because I lost my Uncle Dennis to cancer just a few years ago. He, too, had received the information from the doctors that "there was nothing else they can do". He went home and died at home several weeks later, surrounded by family, friends, laughter and music.
Death is weird. It's an uncomfortable thing to face, since we'll all go through it at some time or another. I don't know a lot about death, even though I have lost quite a few relatives. One minute they're there and the next minute they're not there.
Dennis' death was bittersweet. He had battled cancer for years and years, earning respite after respite until there was no more they could do. He went in and out of treatments, was enrolled in clinical trials and endured countless types of medication. I don't think the cancer ever ruled his life, but I do know that it was a big part of his life. Family and friends made accommodations for him and I think he ended up living his life the way that he wanted to live it, in spite of the cancer. At least I would like to think that. He was a pilot, and loved nothing more than to get into his plane and fly off somewhere. When the cancer got worse, he lost his license and his wife ended up getting her license. I think she was always fine to fly with him because he had countless hours upon hours of flight time. And even though the doctors said he wasn't fit to fly, his knowledge was still there in the plane with them.
After several years, there was nothing more the doctors could do. Dennis figured out that each treatment would last less long. His first rounds of treatment kept him cancer free for 6 years, then his second round kept him cancer free for 3 years, then 1.5 years, then 6 months. In the grand scheme of things, he had less than a year to live. It's hard to be an outsider, looking in. We heard that the cancer was back, that things were not looking so good. But they had looked bad in the past, and things had gotten better, right? So, this time would be like the last. Except Dennis decided to end treatments. He decided, on his own terms and with his own mind, that he would end treatments. Word went out that Dennis was dying, and the troops rallied and we all gathered at his bedside.
He had become a shell of the man that he was - thinner and knobblier and hobblier. His voice was strong, but the cancer had spread to his bones, so it was hard to touch him without causing him pain. Someone was always holding his hand, no matter what was going on. Hospice care came in and talked to everyone, telling us what to expect, giving Dennis medications to keep him comfortable, encouraging him to eat and to go about daily life, as normal as possible.
At the time, my cousin, Rhonda (Dennis' daughter) had just given birth to her son, Sayer. He was just a few weeks old when his Grandpa passed away. I remember how Sayer would instantly calm down when he was laid on his Grandpa's chest. How green the hills were, how the rains had come and gone and left this beautiful paradise all green. There was laughter all the time, likely a product of our nervousness at being around death, but there weer true, genuine moments, too. My cousin Adrian, sang some beautiful songs for us (and I think we all sang along, too). There was a constant flow of people in and out of the house, bringing food and beer and love and compassion. It was a true community effort, and in all truthfulness, it was an amazing thing to be a part of, as weird as that sounds. For a moment, or two, this dying man brought together his family and friends, from all parts of his life: his church, his home, his childhood, his adulthood. And we all gathered around to watch his life end, surrounded by those who loved him, and likely hoping our end would be similar.
Dennis died on a Saturday morning, with his wife and his daughter and his grandson by his side. As his disease progressed, he slept more and more, and could no longer see his visitors, although I think he knew we were there. Death is something weird, but also weirdly beautiful. Your friends and family are never gathered together in such a way, and people often don't get the opportunity to tell you how much they care about you, and how much you have meant to their lives. In the end, although you don't want this person to leave you, you begin to realize the pain and suffering they are going through, such that, when death comes, it's almost a relief.
I will always be thankful that Dennis was allowed to do things in his own way. I will always be grateful that I was there to share the experience, and that I played a role, however small, in sending someone on to their next life, or wherever one goes. It was a wholly humbling and amazing experience.