After her memorial service, a photo collage of Sally Kaiser rode home with me, a composite of her life in a two-foot by two-foot frame. I carefully placed it upright on my back seat, preparing to take it up north. At our annual retreat to Lake Superior, our support group of women with recurrent cancer will lovingly linger on each photograph. We will marvel at all of the parts of Sally’s life we did not share. We only knew her for three years.
Each time I glance in the rearview mirror, I see another year of her life disappearing. In the corner, a teenager smiles out at me from her yearbook photo. Then she is standing next to her father, a Presbyterian preacher. When I look back again, I see her gazing lovingly at Bill, her husband to be, also destined to become a Presbyterian preacher. They are at a sweetheart dance, and it is the only photograph where she is not wearing her glasses. Her face is strikingly in love.
They marry, and soon the babies arrive, two beautiful girls. After staying home to raise the girls, Sally returns to school and graduates from college in library science. In the next picture, we see her reading to a group of children, just a few of the hundreds she would touch in her life. Then, in an unexpected instant, a heart attack took Bill at the age of 50. Breast cancer was her next surprise. And a breast cancer recurrence 10 years later. When cancer showed up again in 2003, Sally came to our support group. “I knew about you before,” she told us that first meeting. “But I need you now.” We were blessed to have Sally with us for those three years. She helped us a lot …and we helped her.
I believe that people need people, and I especially believe that people with cancer need other people with cancer. I believe that hope and healing happen when a room full of strangers become kindred spirits by sharing their common experience. For the past ten years, I have been privileged to be the facilitator of this wonderful group of dying women. Yes, we are all dying (believe it or not!) But for these women, it is just a little more real. And that reality makes them a little more real, as well.
In this country consumed with health care crisis, I believe that healing should be as important as curing. Death is as natural as birth. I believe we as a nation must learn to honor this rite of passage. And share our wisdom about death with one another.
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