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Breathing with Helen

            My friend Helen flew to Canada for a week’s vacation with her sister and never returned. A neatly dressed 60-year-old woman with Helen’s slim figure, silver-gray curls, and radiant smile came back, but it wasn’t the Helen I knew. The woman who got off the plane was dazed and confused. It was hard to imagine how she negotiated the plane transfer required to get to the Seattle airport.

            In an effort to find out the reason for her confusion, Helen’s neighbor and I took her to several doctors’ appointments. Using a signature that resembled chicken scratch more than her usually precise penmanship, she signed numerous forms authorizing a series of tests and giving her doctors permission to tell her neighbor and me the results.

            I remember the June morning when I learned the test results. The doctor called while I was alone with Helen at her condo. The tests were conclusive. Helen had an inoperable brain tumor located in the center of her frontal lobe. The tumor’s placement made it impossible to treat with surgery and it would not respond to chemotherapy. The doctor suggested radiation treatments to shrink Helen’s cranial swelling and reduce the severity of her frequent headaches. Helen’s best hope was that the radiation treatments might add a month to her life. With or without treatments, Helen had only three or four months to live.

            By early September, any hope for a miraculous cure had died. Now bedridden, Helen's king size bed dwarfed her rail-thin body. The figure in the bed barely resembled the woman I’d known for seven years. The elegant Helen who always dressed with care and entered rooms with a ready smile was gone.

            As she lay in her bed, covered up to her chin with a white eyelet bedspread trimmed with lace, I could see only the face of my dear friend. Her once carefully coiffured hair hung limply around her emaciated face. The bright, smiling eyes that encouraged me through a dozen drafts of my first book were dull and vacant. No longer physically able to eat or drink, her bodily functions were shutting down. And, although she could have been fed intravenously, one had to ask why. It would only prolong the inevitable. With no food or water, Helen would be dead within a few days.

            One afternoon, I had the opportunity to sit alone with Helen in her bedroom. She floated in and out of consciousness as I sat on her bed and talked about things I remembered from when she was healthy. Although she could only flutter her eyelids in response, I hoped she could feel the love behind my words. I recalled the numerous times she boosted the morale of friends and acquaintances by listening with genuine interest to the stories of their lives. Helen always encouraged members of our writers’ club to pursue their writing dreams. Mentally replaying some of her pep talks, I wondered if she had kept enough of her confidence-building elixir for herself. Over the past year, she and I had talked about her struggles to become more assertive. Instead of giving her time away to everyone who asked for help, she was learning how to say that magical two-letter word, “no,” and to focus on her own needs and writing aspirations. But at her core, Helen remained a giver. She had been making great strides to combat her tendency to give too much when her brain tumor threw up an impenetrable roadblock. In an instant, her life as a world traveler, published writer, and first-rate friend collapsed.

            Sitting beside her, I told Helen how her death was transforming my spiritual beliefs. I had begun the summer with my aversion to anything religious fully intact. Then, slowly, my door of resistance cracked open. Helen’s condo became a laboratory where spiritual practices were put to the test. I knew she’d get a kick out of hearing about me praying, chanting, and using touch healing. Although Helen was never pushy about her religious beliefs, she always let me know how important spirituality was to her well-being.

            After about fifteen minutes, I grew tired of hearing myself talk. Over the past three months, I coped best when I could help Helen with her physical needs—cooking food, running errands, and helping her dress. Now she was beyond those necessities, and I didn’t know what to do.

            I stood up, moved to the window, and watched sunlight dance across Puget Sound. A group of gulls circled overhead as a ferry prepared to land at the Edmonds dock. As I turned back, I caught a glimpse of my dear friend in the mirror over her dresser. Seeing her as a stranger might, my heart sank and I slumped to the floor. With my back against the cool outside wall, I watched the erratic rise and fall of her chest. Soon I found myself trying to match my breath with hers, but the irregular rhythm made it difficult for me to stay in synch.

            Hearing Helen draw in a raspy breath, I matched her shallow intake. Seconds passed. My lungs were about to explode when I finally heard her exhale. Whew! Then I waited, literally breathless, for her next intake. There was no pattern, no rhythm. The irregularity of her breaths reminded me of the Energizer Bunny winding down its drumming. Beat, beat-beat, half-beat, beat.

            Within a few minutes, my lungs begged for more oxygen. Taking in half a dozen lung-filling deep breaths, I could almost hear my body say, “Ah, that feels better.” Then I returned to my breath-matching challenge with Helen. Sharing the room’s air with my dying friend felt sacred because I knew it was the last thing she and I could share together.

            A week later, Helen died. As I looked back on our last afternoon together, I could almost feel the strain my lungs felt when I matched her ragged breaths. Having felt Helen’s laborious breathing within my own body helped me release my earthly ties with her and better accept her death.


Make it your story

            Many people have contradictory attitudes towards death. On the one hand, they are fascinated by celebrity deaths, regularly read obituaries in the newspaper, and track disasters where people die in tragic circumstances. Yet they try to avoid thinking about their own deaths.

            Whether you think about it or plan for it or ignore it, death is guaranteed. You received a round trip ticket when you were born. The only aspect you can partially control is the in-between space. What will you do between now and when you die?

A 2007 movie call The Bucket List popularized the notion of writing down a list of things you want to do before you die (or “kick the bucket”). The premise of the movie is that two terminally ill men (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) meet in a hospital and go on a road trip to fulfill a wish list of things they want to do before they die.

On your laptop or paper, create your own bucket list with things you most want to experience before you die. In order to make your list doable, list easy-to-accomplish items as well as challenges. You can list places you want to see, activities you want to experience, or skills you want to achieve. The only limit is your imagination.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Attend a live concert

  • Eat crepes in Paris  

  • Take an improv class

  • Go on a blind date

  • Attend a Native American pow wow

  • Sing karaoke in public

  • Learn to play poker

  • Write a poem

  • Drive across the United States

  • Grow a plant from seed

  • Order room service

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