How do you prepare for a trip knowing that it could be the last opportunity you have to see and say goodbye to so many significant people in your life? Oh, I know…I’ve heard it a hundred times before… “None of us know when it’s our turn to say goodbye.” Or, “a bus could hit anyone of us unexpectedly tomorrow!” These comments are often the response of those trying to silence the topic of death. And I understand that. And because I understand that, I’m compassionate and let the comments drift away on the breath that formed them but for me, the receiver of such comments, they can feel dismissive of my reality. My life, to some degree, is suspended in limbo – the strings of which are controlled by the behaviour of the condition I have. Why? Because mine, like so many others, has a luggage tag stating ‘terminal’ or ‘palliative’. When I look around the plane and watch the dozens of people sitting in my cabin – some travelling with family, some travelling alone, many couples and of course, the cabin crew; I imagine all are engrossed, one way or another, in their travel experience. I wonder where their life path is heading and what their story has been so far. I assume, because I want all of them to have a long future ahead, that none are living with a similar reality to mine.
Today I’m flying to London. The last time I took this route was in February 2006. On that occasion though I was heading in the opposite direction; scared, bewildered & helpless. I know now that what I experienced on that trip home was anxiety; the panic attacks that surged through my body unexpectedly throughout the nineteen-hour journey, had been embedded in fear and uncertainty. With me, my daughters wiled away the hours lost in their own worlds, keeping each other company because, often throughout that trip, I was unable to. On that occasion, my girls were beginning to grapple with the knowledge they had just said goodbye to their beloved grandma for the very last time. They also knew we were flying home to Australia early because I had, only a few days before, been diagnosed with breast cancer. From a youthful age, they were learning that life has no guarantees.
The past few weeks have been incredibly busy in the lead up to going away for six weeks. I had orchestrated it that way…it distracted me. Dozens of times I was excitedly asked if I was looking forward to seeing my family and friends. I’d smile, “I will be, the closer we get to going.” I’d say. The truth was, I felt numb about it. And now, here I am, sitting on a plane with HOURS of thinking time. There’s no escaping the thoughts trying to break through the leathery membrane that, up until now has kept them controlled and beneath the surface. It’s a strange feeling, that of observer – watching the vitality of life all around from a place that knows and lives with the fragility of life.
Reflection is an inevitable pair of spectacles that those facing their mortality wear. I find, often unwittingly, that I have put them on. Being confined to a capsule thousands of feet in the air finds me wearing, yet again, those spectacles; What if, at the age of eighteen, I’d acted upon the promise I’d made to myself of returning to the land of my birth to get to know my family in South Africa? What if I hadn’t been so apathetic about my attitude toward high school – an act of defiance toward a school that, based on my perception at the time of the rules in place, labelled students according to their socio-economic background? What would my life look like today if I’d studied then as I chose to study in my early thirties? What if I’d said ‘Yes” to Mik’s proposal to leave England with him for Australia in 1982 instead of saying “Yes” to Jeff’s marriage proposal in 1983 and emigrating with him and our girls in 2004? What would my life look like today if I’d made different choices back then? Reverie, often the place we go to when we reflect on our life, is pointless…it assumes that different choices would have carved a very different life for me; a much easier, happier, more fulfilling life – none of us will ever know that for certainty.
There is nothing good about the realisation you are dying. This trip home is guiding me to peel back the thickest layer of emotion that surrounds the fragility of my mortality today; the intense sadness that dying brings. I’m not frightened about the process of dying itself and I have come to a place of peace in knowing that it is more probable now than ever, that I will die within the next two years. Fear of dying though is just one of the layers that we, as thinking beings, go through. The layer most pressing for me today, and the one this trip is highlighting for me, is the loneliness I feel in knowing how much I am going to miss so many people that have been, are and will be such a significant part of my life until it ends. So many people who love me and I love. The deep ache this creates though affords me the clarity of being absolutely present in the presence of family and friends whom I shall be meeting again, many for the last time…an opportunity this trip offers to weave my way into their memories where I will take my place and remain for as long as the lights in their own lives shine long after mine has gone out.