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The gift of death

The best writing comes from the heart. This is as true with investigative journalism as it is with fiction. But tapping into the heart and its rawness is tricky and staying there, harder still. As a writer, I know I often write from the head and while I do touch on feelings, I don’t linger there—that’s because being vulnerable on the page often makes me tongue-tied and quickly frustrated. The words just won’t come, or they won’t come out right, so I end up wrestling with myself.

But how else can I write about a friend’s death? Let me start somewhere…

Last week, my friend Deborah died in hospice. She was 59. She had terminal cancer and chose euthanasia because the tumors overtaking her body made life increasingly painful. There was one as big as a grapefruit on her right chest that blocked her lymph glands, making her right arm swell to four times the size, like a sausage stuffed precariously tight. She told me she was used to carrying the extra weight and that becoming an invalid wasn’t as horrible as she had imagined. But maybe she was putting on a brave face. I’ll never know.

I don’t think choosing euthanasia is easy. I like to think it gave her some sense of control after having so many unknowns thrown at her: months of wondering how long she had left, how much physical pain she would be willing to endure, and then there’s the mental anguish. Yet in deciding for death, she accelerated arriving at this biggest unknown.

Of course, the world is dealing with the corona virus crisis, so death is increasingly visible. But the number of deaths has seemed abstract, a fluctuating number flitting across electric screens. It’s different when death hits close to home, when it’s personal.

Since Deborah died, my feelings have been all over the place. I am relieved she’s not suffering anymore, but sad she’s not here. She was a great conversationalist, charming and deeply present, and I miss the connection because so few people are present. There’s this gnawing sense of emptiness because she no longer exists, yet my appreciation for her does. I am mostly numb as it’s not quite real yet. This is the first stage of grief, and I know grief doesn’t care for timelines so this will circle around again.

What I admired about Deborah was her adventurous spirit and a life spent exploring. Her British parents met in Singapore and raised their family in Kenya, Switzerland and England. Deborah would continue traveling extensively and living in East Asia, acquiring languages, friends, lovers and stories along the way. She was an avid meditator and journeyed to Osho’s ashram in Oregon as a young 20-something, Decades later she discovered the shaking meditation at Ratu Bagus in Bali.

At the hospice, Deborah told me that she saw herself las a twig floating on a river. We were sitting in the garden full of vibrant red tulips, taking in the sunshine and eating toasties, and she said she let the water take her wherever it would; sometimes things flowed quickly and at other times she’d get stuck, yet the water would always come along to dislodge her, and she’d continue on her way. She floated into situations, lives, friendships, and conversations that way.

And she floated into my life, too. We met each other 6 years ago while teaching Russian teenagers English in Utrecht for a two-month summer course. I initially thought she was cold, and she thought I was overly sensitive, edging on a burnout (which I would have months later.) We exchanged superficial pleasantries until the very last day, when we happened to be on the same train heading home. That’s when I learned she wasn’t the Stoic I thought she was. That was a projection—I was the Stoic, suppressing the desperate exhaustion I felt being present to other people while neglecting myself. Deborah was actually calm, unruffled and present.

We saw each other a handful of times and then, it was 2020. She sent me a message because she knew she was dying and trying to find a replacement teacher for her students. I immediately thought, go visit her now. Looking back on it, it seems strange even to me to befriend someone who only had a few months to live, and yet what happened was totally natural. I liked her, the stories spilled out effortlessly whenever we met, a rehash of feminine wisdom and travel stories, and time passed quickly.

I also had a strong desire not to shy away from the dying process. A good friend of mine died 10 years ago from skin cancer. Tanya was 40 and it all happened so quickly. I kept telling myself I would call her next week only there was no next week. When my 89-year old grandmother died in California, an 11-hr flight away, I never got the chance to hold her hands again. Because I didn’t have geography stopping me this time, I wanted to be there for Deborah.

I sometimes wondered if I was being selfless or selfish spending time with her. Was I subconsciously giving to get because I hoped someone would do the same for me if I needed it? Was I trying to earn good karma points somehow, trying to trick the universe into a specific outcome?

I think I doubted myself because I received so much from Deborah: friendship, being seen, learning her stories, though there are thousands I missed, and especially the chance to witness someone consciously approach their death, knowing exactly when, where and how it would happen. This is rare.

As I write this, I am aware of my anger, which I don’t do well, directed mostly at death. This idea of no tomorrows, no second chances makes me want to scream. I have a strong drive to outwit death, it’s a swirling impatience that claws at me because I have a yearning to live fully—and so often, I didn’t.

I find myself mentally replaying opportunities I lost due to fear, playing small and the illusory beliefs I held about my own inadequacy. I have always been my harshest critic, staying unhappy longer than the average person, only this way of being is miserable. It sticks to you like the stink of raw onions, making it hard to shake.

I know the past is an animal I can never catch, so why linger there? It’s gone. I could have done so many things better or differently, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I knew it. Looking at death underscores the sweet knowledge that I am still alive. So many opportunities still exist. This sensation feels like passionate plea to myself: please please please, Dara, don’t take things for granted. Don’t forget…

Deborah mastered living in the here and now. It sounds cliché but this is where my words falter. What words possibly grip the breadth of that sentence? I often shy away from being here, undistracted, because being truly present fills me with tears and hysteric laughter. Laughter because I am in awe of how deep, complex, multidimensional and all-encompassing life is—this bliss wells up in me and cannot be contained. And yet these same qualities are insufferably beautiful, reducing me to tears. These are tears of gratitude—that I deserve to exist and experience such magic—and they are also tears of sadness, for one day I will also leave it all behind.

I feel deep appreciation of life and the millions of moments it has gifted me, each one unique and irreplaceable. I hope these next few decades of my life, I will be able to embrace and fully live my wisdom, as well the coming frailty, with the same grace Deborah did.

Thank you, Deborah. Thank you for being such a great friend; thank you, too, for being my teacher.

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