I gave birth to my daughter in a roomful of family and friends. That night, my best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Sarah and I were friends for thirty years—shared dreams and dreads on playgrounds, over coffee, on long-distance phone calls. Our abstract worsts were cancer and death—and now, we began marking time by them.
Frances learned to nurse sharing my lap with cancer-survivorship books; Sarah had her mastectomy, shaved her head, survived chemo.
Frances turned one; we celebrated Sarah’s remission.
Frances turned two; Sarah called from the hospital, re-diagnosed, Stage IV. She cried and said she didn’t want to scare me. I lied, said I’m not afraid; so she let me in.
Frances turned three; we formalized our writers’ group—two mothers sharing thoughts, predawn. She edited my fiction; I edited, memorized, internalized her essays on living in what she called “Cancerworld.”
Frances turned four; and a brain tumor took Sarah from walking to walker to wheelchair; she started typing right-handed.
Because she let me, my tires dug 500-mile-long ruts between our houses. I delivered mochas in the mornings; sat beside her bed, or recliner, or beside her under the maple. She named her paralyzed leg; quoted David Sedaris, wished for one more night-walk with her girls, feared dying might take too long, shook her scarred head at the thought and let me cry with her.
Five months before Frances turned five, Sarah began to die.
For 72 hours I joined a circle of family and friends helping Sarah labor. She believed in dying with her loved-ones beside her, believed in letting us in.
She let us massage her feet; sighed when we cooled her cheeks with cloths; let us lift her long arms high for each anguished cough. We lay, in turns, beside Sarah, slowing our breath to slow hers; she granted us the merge. We whispered private gratitudes, wept desperations. I scrubbed dusty appliances, memorized sisters’ stories of Baby Sarah. Someone lit candles; I gripped Sarah’s shin. Someone hummed.
Sarah let us in because she knew we needed to be let in. She let us bear the increasing time between her breaths. She let us bear her dying.
I believe in letting people in. Because of Sarah, I believe in the gift of being let in—in life and, when circumstances allow, in death—to witness, nurture, absorb, sanctify.
Sarah died on persimmon sheets, within the womb-like walls of her bedroom. One baby teenage-daughter lay beside her, the other at her bare feet; her husband lay as he had for days, his face sheltered by her jaw, his arm across her chest, like an extra rib, protecting her heart from going all alone.
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