I got a call on Monday from a former client – and I guess you could also call her a friend – although not an intimate one. “Hi Cathy, it’s Vanessa (not her real name). I know we haven’t talked in a long time. I have something I need to tell you, but I’d rather tell you in person rather than leave a message on your voice mail.”
I’ve known Vanessa for at least fifteen years. I met her when I was providing physical therapy services for her employer. Vanessa was my client’s caregiver and after she left that job, she sought me out to do some Rolfing. We did a series of sessions to treat her back pain and during that process, I got to know more about her. A pretty woman with red hair and blue eyes, Vanessa was married to a farmer. She had three daughters in their teens, she worked cleaning houses and caregiving and she was a victim of severe childhood abuse. Vanessa spoke of her history matter-of-factly, but I always wondered about the impact her childhood had produced on her current life.
After we finished her Rolfing series, Vanessa would call from time-to-time. She might come in for a maintenance session, we might meet for lunch, and most years she would bring me a fifty pound bag of onions – produce from her husband’s farm. During our infrequent visits, Vanessa talked about her life – various challenges including estrangements with her family. One daughter had moved away and wasn’t speaking to her, another was in school in a different state and rarely called. Vanessa would share her stories, but not in great detail. She seemed philosophical about her lot and accepting of the situation. But, again, I often wondered about the dynamics that produced a family so distant and troubled.
When we finally connected this week, Vanessa said: “Cathy, I’ve been diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma. The doctors have given me two months. I have elected not to do any treatment. I just wanted you to know that I think the world of you and I so appreciate your kindness to me over the years.” She went on to say that her daughters had all come to see her when they learned the news. Everyone showed their love and support, and she planned to travel over the next month to see siblings, cousins, and aunts that she hadn’t seen in years. She seemed happy, content, at ease with her fate – looking forward spending time with family and friends.
As I hung up the phone, somehow I felt uplifted by our conversation. My sense is that Vanessa has finally let go of whatever was keeping her from connecting with her loved ones and they with her. She’s content to pass from this life knowing that they rallied around her in her final days.
Vanessa, thank you for this gift… All the things that have been bothering me recently seem trite. I vow to spend more time playing, less time worrying, and to tell those I love how I feel at every opportunity. And most of all, I hope that when the time comes, I will accept my own mortality with the same courage and grace that I now see in you.