Saturday, March 10, 2007

Living on Borrowed Time

If you found out that you had an inoperable malignant brain tumor and your days were numbered, how would you plan to spend them? This is the case for our petite 91-year-old friend Florence, the inspiration for Poetry by the Light of the Moon. We spent the afternoon with her and I came away more impressed than ever with this woman who has risen above many a crisis, but whose days are definitely numbered with this one.

One of the first signs of this invasive cancer was a loss of vision and balance, which were definitely evidenced a couple of months ago when we had Florence over for Shabbat dinner. She couldn’t see much of what was in front of her and imagined things that were not. I could tell just how frightening this was to her.

With this vision loss in mind, we decided to take her a small bag of things to thrill her remaining senses: fragrant body lotion, sumptuous chocolate truffles, and two books on tape to occupy her time. I’ve always heard that blind people rely on their other senses to compensate for their loss of sight. I hope this will be true in Florence’s case as well.

She is so wise in her approach to this disease. And she is fully knowledgeable of the gravity of it. Instead of opting for surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, she is taking prednisone to decrease the swelling in her brain and gathering her family and friends around like warm blankets to give her comfort. She has no pain currently, just diminishing sight, balance, and motor ability.

She is living at home with her daughter Lydia who has come back from Boston to take care of her mom. Lydia is an accomplished cook and an artist. The whole family are brilliant – cultured, well-read, and compassionate.

We spent the afternoon sipping tea and feasting on a pear tart that Lydia had made. We didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on Florence’s predicament, choosing instead to talk about upcoming election candidates, the fact that children are being robbed of time to play, how to make garam masala, the loss of civil liberties, and the potential for life elsewhere in our galaxy. How’s that for a variety of topics?

Before leaving I volunteered to gather people Florence knows and loves for a poetry reading at her house. Her face lit up and I could see her starting to think about what she would read, or perhaps what she would choose for someone else to read.

Her son, who is a scientist, followed us out to our car. He admitted to being unprepared to deal with the emotional aspect of what’s to come as he watches his mother’s brain be paralyzed by a growing tumor. He’s scared, but he and the rest of the family are the best line of support anyone could ask for.

If I were in Florence’s place, I would probably be arranging for a quick escape route when I felt it was time to go. I’m not sure I would be willing to let nature take it’s gruesome course.

But for now, Florence continues to embrace life with a fervor that is enviable. And just what was I complaining about last week?


Blogger Pauline said...

What a frightening prospect. Both of my parents opted out of treatment for their malignancies and it was so hard to watch them suffer. I can understand Florence's son's fear for her and for his own emotional reaction. I think to love our dear ones, to surround them with love right up to their last moment, is the best thing we can do for them. It sounds like you are doing that for Florence.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

What a wonderful gift - the lotions, etc. Great idea.

A salute to Florence, but a salute to YOU! the only thing missing from my day yesterday was lunch with you, but I'm so glad you spent that time with your friend.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- It's frightening indeed. But it is serving to show just how well-connected this family is. The children (who are not much younger than I am) are eccentric in their own right but they are united in the love for their mother. I was actually dreading seeing Florence for fear that the eventual destruction would already be evidenced, but instead I found a vibrant woman who is resigned to her fate and is basking in the attention of her family. It was a lesson in serenity which I am filing away for some time (hopefully) in the far future.

Reya -- I thought about you more than once yesterday at services and in that space of time that often sees us kicking back to enjoy a glass of wine and a delicious lunch. We both had such comfortable days with others, but I did miss your company.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

I would do exactly what she is doing. It is perfect and she will go as graciously as possible. She has lived an extraordinary life to the can't ask for much more than that.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

MOI -- You're absolutely right. There's definitely a dignity in dying that Florence epitomizes. She is truly an amazing woman. I just wish I had met her 3 decades ago instead of 3 years ago...

10:39 AM  
Blogger Ulysses said...

The remaining days are numbered for each of us. Try this for further food for thought: The Death of Sir Walter Raleigh by Paul Auster in The Red Notebook (I think that's the book it's in) Can't find it? I'll send it along.

10:28 PM  

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