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Coming to grips with a dear friend's terminal illness

The Long Goodbye



Sudden death smashes into life unexpectedly and unpredictably, with the brute force of a punch to the gut. The shocking phone call telling of an automobile crash, a heart attack or a suicide pierces your heart with pain, and the very ground beneath your feet gives way.

The news that someone dear to you is dying strikes a horrible, unimaginable blow, but one that in its inexorable march toward the end is akin to slowly peeling the bandage off a weeping wound over and over again. Navigating the path with someone from terminal prognosis through their final breath is uncharted territory buffeted by uncertainty, sadness, guilt and fear. It is also blessed by generosity, love and grace.

When the biopsy of the lump Jayne found in her breast in July 2010 revealed cancer, and her doctor asked her to come back in to talk about "the next step," we both assumed that meant a lumpectomy or mastectomy, chemo, possibly radiation. She'd lose her hair, get some cute hats, and maybe perky new breasts. Her friends would wear pink ribbons and we'd all race for the cure wearing T-shirts emblazoned with 'The Jayne Gang," and to mark her one-year cancer-free anniversary, we'd go to the beach.

We were concerned, but with the optimism of women who had already seen some of our mothers' friends successfully reach five years of remission, we also felt confident this was a battle we would win. After all, Jayne was in great health otherwise, slim and fit, a non-smoker, moderate drinker, and only 51 years old.

And so the words "Stage IV breast cancer" hung in the room after the doctor spoke them, menacing as an evil intruder, plunging us down a rabbit hole of fear. That night, in the face of something so enormously abnormal, we did something utterly normal. We went to a movie. Winter's Bone is surely one of the bleakest films ever made, but we were never ones for chick flicks, and the grim, foreboding storyline suited our mood.

A few days later, five of us crowded into her oncologist's examining room to learn a new language and acquire our passports for this alternate universe. Jayne would start "treatment," though it would not cure her. It would only "manage" the disease, and as one course of treatment lost its effectiveness, they would try something else. The doctor could not tell Jayne how long she might have, only that she would do her best to "maintain a quality of life that was acceptable to her."

For Jayne, that meant work, live music, restaurants, movies, gardening, dancing, art, visits to the park with her dog Satchi, and time at the barn where she boarded her beloved horse Diva.

To do all of those things — and maintain the schedule of cancer-related appointments, scans, blood work, tests and treatment — this proudly independent and happily single woman would, for one of the first times in her life, need help.

With her family in Miami, her parents in compromised health, and a musician boyfriend off and on the road, friends rallied around.

We'd heard that having cancer doesn't just show what you're made of, it also shows what your friends are made of, and Jayne's friends were solid gold. Meals, rides, chemo companions, grocery shopping, nights out, housecleaning, laundry, yard work, dog sitting and horse grooming were simple yet generous acts of kindness they practically fought each other to perform.

Jayne appointed me leader of the team, employing the classic passive-aggressive style she had learned as the oldest daughter of a Jewish mother — "If it's not too much trouble, could you ... " — until I told her to knock it off.

Amid all the loving, hugging, caring and tears she received from those friends, there were practical matters to be tended to. Some were easy. She asked me to create and write a "Jayne Gang" blog to keep everyone informed. I assigned meals and rides, and we tackled piles of paperwork generated by extended illness.

She put off the hard stuff until the very last day she spent in her house, when she was so light I could carry her like a child from her bed to a chair while I changed her sheets. It was that heartbreakingly tender and intimate task that finally made me look her in the eyes and say, "Jayne, we need to talk about these things, and then we never need to talk about them again."

Medical power of attorney and a DNR. Cremation or burial? What to do with her house, Satchi and Diva? She whispered the answers to me, as if saying them too loud would set them into motion. Nineteen months after she found the lump in her breast, she was admitted to the hospital. Eight days later, in a quiet darkened room on a bed encircled by family and friends, she left this life.

Some people say if they could choose how their loved ones die, they would prefer to have time to say goodbye, as opposed to a sudden death. I've known both kinds, and I believe this: Unless a lingering death gives you the opportunity to repair some unresolved conflicts, one is not easier than the other. Sudden impact or slow fade, losing someone you love is wrenching; the pain is physical and the grieving is anguished. Healing happens in its own time.

I'll never stop missing Jayne, but she is still here, in Satchi, in Diva, in her dress my daughter wears, in the framed photograph of a younger us that sits on a table in my living room, next to a ceramic box filled with dried rose petals from the bush she planted in her front yard. Just when I think we've said goodbye, I find a ticket stub for Winter's Bone in the bottom of the purse I carried that night, and my heart is healed a little more by the blessing of Jayne saying hello.


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