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Who we are in the face of death

I wrote this post two months ago (almost to the day) as I was on a train leaving Lancaster, having just spent 24 hours with my dear friend who was dying. She told me then that she had two to six months to live, she died last night. I woke up feeling sad yesterday – sad enough to write about it… And then she died. I’ve already written about some of this so it may be repetition, but I decided on the train that I would only post it after Camilla died, and now she has.

What is so strange and surprising to me is that if you let yourself feel the sadness, it does pass. It washes over you, and you emerge out the other side. If you don’t bottle it up or resist it, it passes. I’m sure most other people know this already, but I feel like I’m just learning it…

I’ve just had one of the most significant 24 hours of my life. It’s odd to know that, as it’s happening – I feel like so much of life only reveals its’ significance later. But this is 24 hours I will be thinking about for years…

I’m currently on a train heading out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, my college town. I came to Lancaster for a couple of reasons – I wanted to visit F&M to do a talk about how meaningful a Creative Writing degree can be, I wanted to reconnect with a few very dear professors, and I wanted to see my friend and former teacher Camilla, who’s been battling cancer.

She told me before I came that she’d have to leave at lunchtime today for a chemo appointment tomorrow, so I knew things weren’t good. But she was driving 5 hours from Upstate New York to Lancaster to spend the night with me so I figured things weren’t that bad… But I was wrong. It turns out that she has two to four months left – she’s dying of cancer. And in the face of that, we had the most extraordinary 24 hours.

The main reason I wanted to see her – aside from delighting in her vivacious, irrepressible spirit, was because she gave me a book – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – when I graduated and said that it would be useful one day when I wrote her biography. When she nearly died at the beginning of 2018 I felt like there was a life debt I was at risk of not fulfilling, so I wanted to spend a day with her, asking her questions and writing down answers and then compiling it into a little book of memories for her… And her family and friends. I didn’t realise it would be writing down memories in the face of death, and that every conversation we had would vacillate between laughing at the absurdity of it all and crying over the imminence of her not being here any more.

“I’m scared,” she said to me this morning as we hugged after breakfast. “I’m so scared.” And, “I don’t get it, I just don’t get it,” yesterday when we were talking about how her future could be anything from two months to six and she has to decide where she wants her ashes and how to help her beloved husband Bruce go on after she has left.

People always talk about bravery in the face of death, and Camilla has that. But she also has humour – we made a lot of hilarious imminent death jokes. And she has acceptance coupled with a fiery belligerence. Above all, she has grace. She’s approaching this with courage and awareness, and that is so hard to do. She’s not distracting herself from what’s going to happen, she’s looking at it head on and deciding who she is in the face of not being alive any more.

We talked about death and what we think comes after, what we need to learn from this life and how we know that some things don’t matter – worry, anxiety, holding grudges – yet we find them impossible to let go of. We also laughed and cried and drank tea and ate corn chips.

It was 24 of the most beautiful and intense hours of my life.

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