Friday, July 26, 2013

Life's Depths

When I got really sick after my second chemo treatment, I found myself at Brigham & Women’s Hospital where I learned that my absolute neutrophil count (the number of useful white blood cells) was zero. My first reaction to that news was, Excellent! If the chemo killed all those good cells, it must mean that it killed all the bad ones, too.

Later, when my fever spiked again, I felt totally frustrated by my own stupidity. I wished that I had respected the power of germs as I had heard chemo patients were supposed to do. But instead, I had hugged lots of people at the Thanksgiving Day football game and I had eaten snacks out of the same bowl that the kids were digging their unwashed little fingers into.

When I explained to a very kind doctor that I was regretting not taking many (any?) steps to avoid germs, he explained to me that I should ditch the frustration. You have bacteria in your body naturally so even if you had been in a bubble, with an ANC of zero, you’d have gotten sick. And so I waited for my body to fight its way out of the hospital. It only took five days, which felt long until I remembered Ashley.

When I arrived at the Brigham that late November night, Ashley had already been there for several months. She had received new lungs and while the lungs had been miraculous, one thing lead to another and an infection in her body caused Ashley to suffer multiple strokes. Doctors operated on her head to control the swelling and when I met her, Ashley was learning how to talk and stand up again. She and her mother, Joy, told me all of that the very first day I met them from behind my mask in the hospital gift shop.

When I left the Brigham just before December, Ashley remained. Since then she had a few stints at rehab and one at her home in Maine, but otherwise, Ashley and her family spent most of 2013 in the ICU at the Brigham. A tiny and beautiful young woman, Ashley defied all odds, battling through surgeries from which her doctors warned she may never wake up and fighting through countless obstacles like no one thought possible. She loved God, her brother, her big family, music, greasy food, her doctors, and so many other things that I don't even know about since I barely even knew her. I missed out, but those who feel the most grief right now feel that pain because they didn't. 

Yesterday morning, Ashley passed away peacefully with her loving family by her side. My Mom, who told me months ago that Ashley’s journey was too hard for her to follow, called me at work to see how I was handling the awful news. I hadn't checked Joy's Facebook status yet that hour so I hadn't seen the post from 40 minutes prior. It was the post that I dreaded every time I waited for Joy's page to load on my computer.  

I left my office last night having successfully hidden my broken heart. It was rainy, cold, and dark, which felt so fitting. Because of the weather, I decided to take the Orange Line to Back Bay instead of walking to catch the train at South Station like I always do. 

When I took my seat on the subway, I wanted to burst into tears. I had bottled up so much emotion in that last hour and I hoped that I could contain it for my one-hour-door-to-door trip home. Turns out that I couldn’t. I cried onto my raincoat as the train shook past Downtown Crossing and Chinatown.

Then I noticed the man sitting across from me. He was probably 50 or 55, about double Ashley’s age. Thanks to a significant amount of alcohol and/or drugs, the man literally could not sit up straight or open his eyes. His friend or son or fellow addict was in slightly better shape than he was and he kept pulling on the man's dirty t-shirt to keep him from falling onto the shoulder of the poor girl sitting next to them.

I see drunk people and drug addicts on the Orange Line all the time and besides being cautious of their volatility and often, their stench, I don't dwell on them. But yesterday was different. As I sat there crying over the death of a young daughter, sister, cousin, niece, granddaughter, friend, and distant inspiration, I couldn’t help that my sadness turned to anger.

In my glasses, my LL Bean raincoat, my flip flops, and my professional-ish black work dress, I wanted to jump across the train and pummel that tilting man. I wanted to tell him that someone half his age had been fighting for her life for years; that she just died; that she deserved to reach whatever birthday he last celebrated so much more than he ever did. That God should have taken him. But I sat there quiet and still.

A stop or two later, I realized how ridiculous I was being. Life’s just not that simple. 

Then I got to wondering about what had happened to that guy that made him do what he was doing to himself. Maybe he was abused as a kid. Maybe he had been stable and then the death of his wife or young child caused him to start drinking. Maybe he had served our country and we had all failed him. I wasn’t forgiving any crimes he had committed or harm he had done to himself or others. I was just reminding myself that oftentimes, there's a lot of grey area when it comes to placing people in a good or bad category.

Sometimes, however, a person's goodness is crystal clear. Even from a distance, I can say with the utmost confidence that Ashley and her family are as good as they get. There's nothing grey about that.

*  *  *

This blog is not an attempt to make sense of a tragedy nor is it an attempt to pay my respects to Ashley. Right now, there's no way I could do either. All I can do is write about one tiny moment of clarity, one sliver of understanding, that I found as I stepped off the train last night.

The moment came from the combination of several thoughts that had been swirling like a tornado in my head -- Ashley's life, her death, her mom; my Mom; my daughter; August 8th, a road race, a pain in my stomach; the addict. A quote. 

You can't do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth. 
~ H.L. Mencken, writer, editor, and critic (1880-1956)

It's true; none of us know how long our life will be. Maybe, then, I should stop equating old age with proof of a life's depth. Because as horrifically tragic and unjust as their deaths have been, the people who I have seen pass far too early -- amazing young men and women like Scott and Brendan and Mary and Ashley -- they all lived lives that stretched so wide and reached so deep that most 100 year olds haven't been blessed to live a fraction of the life that they did. 

1 comment:

  1. Tara,
    I have followed your blog from the beginning but was a little glad I am catching up.Love the quote you shared above, thank you!