Another “Death Notice” alert. I cringe and wince. My stomach muscles cramp up in knots.
I hate these emails.
You would think by now after nearly 10 years of working at a cancer hospital (about 5 years of those in a chemotherapy department where death notices are received nearly daily and even more than once a day) that I would be accustomed to yet another death announcement. That maybe I would be desensitized or immune to yet another death that comes with the territory of people fighting for their lives and to live every single day once given world-stopping diagnose of the “C-Word” (cancer) or “T-Word” (tumor).
But, alas, no immune system has built up, desentization has not transpired, and indifference has been felt just yet within me. And, I’m thankful for this. I always want to feel when I receive a declaration of death. Just as I feel with life, I want to feel with death. Behind every death notice is a name, person, face, and physical shell body of a human being with a precious and unique life, journey, stories, thoughts, and experiences that are only conveyed as best as can be to the outside from the very depths and cores of the insides.
I see the name. The knots twist even tighter until I feel physically ill.
My favorite patient had passed away.
I could feel the lump forming and enlarging in my throat. I close my eyes to try to diminish the stings that are pricking and pinching right in the crevices of my eyes, but that is when she appears and the memories revolved around her spill over like silken pure white milk in my mind.
There she is with her wide grin showcasing her pearly white teeth. Enlarged plastic square-framed glasses and her blinking, big eyes full of child-like curiosity and age-old serenity. The lilt of her sappy, Southern drawl that greeted me when I was glued to the computer screen, “Well, hello, Miss Mary. You are looking lovely today. New skirt, right? You are beautiful, Miss Mary. Are you turning it up, Miss Mary?”
Her hands raised up into the air and twirled around—artfully, masterfully, and, oh, so, gracefully…like she was a dancer to the rhythms, rhymes, beats, and bangs of life. I could not help but laugh and exclaim with my hands up in the air mimicking her: “You know it! I am turning it up!”
In a harmonic unified melody, we chimed together, “Turn it up! Turn up this life!”
A woman who is (not just was) a mother, grandmother, wife, aunt, friend, and who had a whole crew of loved ones to accompany her in laughter, smiles, and peaceful presence when she had yet another chemotherapy treatment appointment. When I remember her, I do not remember the hours she spent hooked up to IV bags containing multiple high-dose and high-dollar chemotherapy drugs that coursed through her body, how she shuffled to the bathroom in a dancing tango with her IV pole, or the pre-medications and appointments that were prepared for her.
I remember her for who I remember her to be and not what her illness made her out to be. She was not and never some disease, diagnosis, patient, or a body laid in a reclined chair for countless hours as the chemotherapy treatments ran their course. She was a dignified human being and person with a life lived, loved ones, and, now, a legacy of how I and others will remember her. Remembering her makes me stop and wonder if I am really remembering her for how she really was? Do people ever really comprehend who we are? Do we ever really understand who we are? How do you wish to be remembered?
I wish I could freeze frame people’s facial expressions and the awkward pause that follows for just a millisecond when I tell them that I work at a cancer hospital. Many cannot even say the C-word without fear flickering in their eyes. People immediately recoil as though I or cancer are contagious and say, “Wow. That must be sad. I could never do your job. It takes a certain personality. You must see a lot of death.”
I blink, confused and bewildered. After that initial reaction, I respond with a slow smile upturned on my face and say, “Well, yes, we do get these death notices, but I honestly see more life and living because it takes death and dying for people to really live and begin again.”
Working at a cancer hospital or any kind of hospital, for that matter, I’ve seen and felt the depths of death, dying, darkness, despair, but, contrary and perhaps even shockingly to what people perceive when they hear the frightful “C-word” or “T-word," I have seen all the more life, living, peace, playfulness, humor, laughter, hope, and happiness. I would never trade in the days of darkness, because the shining glimpses of light outweigh and outlive in ways that cannot be measured or expressed.
It seems to me that life moves in motions of growing up and then growing old and then older where we are closer to death. At a certain point, “Turn it Up” becomes all the more vital—turn up the smiles, the love, the laughter, the little moments that mean that most, the joy, the happiness, the memories, and, especially, life and how you wanted to live it and want to be remembered for it.
One notice declared her death.
One death notice will provide immediate and instant factual knowledge.
One death notice will not and never do justice and capture the countless medical documents that had recorded her fight and plight to live in the face and shadows of death. One death notice will not remember her or tell you about all her glittering glory of how she “turned up life” with her smile, her arms high in the air in a ballerina pose, and just her for her soulful spirit. I close my eyes and I can see and feel the beats of her life rather than the last breath of her death, and I open my eyes wide to a strong pull in me to continue to “Turn it Up” and to live my life so people will remember me for all my turned up moments rather than one notice that declares a death.
To one of my many favorite patients who has left imprints in me, I can see you in my mind and I can see you in your new heavenly home as you show to all of your angel friends your graceful, artful, and masterful “Turn it Up” dance. Raise your arms high, close your eyes to feel and flow to the rhythms and rhymes of life, and twirl and whirl in your brand new world that is not an ending but a new beginning for you.
Please know that while I am here on earth and you are in heaven that as I turn up my life, I will ask and remind so many more of your legacy: of your legacy: How will you turn up your life? How do you want to be remembered? How will you be remembered?
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,