I got the email last Thursday. My friend Cary is dying.
Six years ago when Cary was diagnosed with 4th stage ovarian cancer, all of her friends uttered a collective, "Oh, crap."
"I’m not dead yet," was her response. She proved it too. During her chemo, radiation and numerous surgeries, during the devastating news that the cancer had come back again and again, Cary continued to work as a photographer (go here to see her recent work for me). She even managed to achieve a life-long dream when UNM Press published her book and it went on to win a national award (It’s still garnering new praise).
But now she’s in hospice. I can’t pretend there’s going to be a different outcome, no more emails about her "beating the odds."
Today, I’m thinking about grace. Though I haven’t been in Cary’s innermost circle, I’ve known her for 20 years and have always appreciated her incredible professional eye and her marvelous humor. Since her cancer diagnosis, I’ve been floored by her ability to rise above becoming the disease and her insistence on eschewing any inclination for self-pity.
Cary has shared her journey through group emails. She’s written about the cancer’s merciless progress and we readers have witnessed her determination to live her life fully until . . . Damnit, there have been so many setbacks and she’s always managed to pull through. But three weeks ago, her email began with:
"My dear friends, family and colleagues,
The truth is that the news from me is not very good . . . "
The road block this time was too big, too much. In another recent email, she included this poem:
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
. . . my friend Cary was saying goodbye.
Today as I write this, I am heartbroken.
I’m also grateful. Through the bounty of words and her photographs, Cary has created a legacy that will outlast her too-short life.
We human beings are bound most fundamentally by the truth of death. We mystery writers think about it every day — in our fiction at least — and yet when it slaps us upside the head, we still reel from the blow.
Though I feel tremendous grief right now, a sore rawness in the final waiting, I want to honor Cary and all that she has accomplished . . .
When a fan sent me this link I immediately thought of Cary’s well-lived life. It’s for an indie film about the fan’s father; he’s determined to find and photograph all the Native American petroglyphs in New Mexico before they disappear due to natural or human causes.
Please take the two minutes to watch the preview. It’ll inspire you.
And then take a moment more to look inside yourself — at your own dreams, your own life, your own creative legacy — and give thanks.
UPDATE: I just got the email this evening. Cary died today . . .
Pari, I’m so sorry about your friend. I love the poem she sent, and want to add another poem, also called The Wild Geese, but by Wendell Berry. It seems like a companion piece to Mary Oliver’s and is one of my all-time favorite poems.
The Wild Geese
Horseback on Sunday morning,harvest over, we taste persimmonand wild grape, sharp sweetof summer’s end. In time’s mazeover fall fields, we name namesthat went west from here, namesthat rest on graves. We opena persimmon seed to find the treethat stands in promise,pale, in the seed’s marrow.Geese appear high over us,pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,as in love or sleep, holdsthem to their way, clear,in the ancient faith: what we needis here. And we pray, notfor new earth or heaven, but to bequiet in heart, and in eyeclear. What we need is here.
Billie,Thank you for this. It’s beautiful.
I love Wendell Berry’s work.
As for Cary, I feel like I’m on a death watch — waiting, waiting — for that email or phone call. It’s been difficult to concentrate for weeks.
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
This is what we do as humans, no? As friends. And as writers.
I’m so sorry to hear about Cary. This has been a good month for bad news all the way around, I’m sad to say.
I’m so sorry to hear about your friend, Pari. Cancer is truly a merciless disease, in my mind far colder and more unfeeling than any human killer our collective minds can conjure up. I’ve lost too many friends and family to it already, consumed too young by a disease that cares not a whit for fairness.
When I think about those whom death has taken (or is about to), the poetry that comes to mind is John Donne’s famous missive:
No man is an island entire of itself; every manis a piece of the continent, a part of the main;if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europeis the less, as well as if a promontory were, aswell as any manner of thy friends or of thineown were; any man’s death diminishes me,because I am involved in mankind.And therefore never send to know for whomthe bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
I am so sorry about your friend. When my friend died from brain cancer (after fighting harder than I knew was possible), I spent her last day talking to her. She wasn’t conscious. Did she hear me? I don’t know but I want to think she did. I needed her to know how important she’d been to me, how much she’d influenced my life. It’s been eight years and I cry as I type this. I still miss her and would love to talk to her.
Thoughts and prayers for you and for her.
Louise,You’re so right about this month. I think part of the pain right now is the waiting for her release . . .
I know you know what I mean.
Tammy,Thank you for this poem. I hadn’t read it in years and it speaks so incredibly well to this truth.
I keep thinking of the poem DEATH BE NOT PROUD and the book by the same name. Our beginings and endings are what unite us as living beings — that and the fact that we are all truly connected.
I am sorry for the loss of your friend. We never fully “recover” from the deaths of those we love.
Instead, we find new ways of being and, I hope, we are better for their love — and try to be better people in their honor.
My prayers are with Cary and her family and friends as her end-of-life challenge consumes their thoughts and actions.
Pari, those we know, especially those we are close to or consider friends, are part of what makes us who we are. That part of you will be a fine, living memorial to your friend.
Pari: I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. A great talent and a great soul, gone too soon.
Pari, I’m so sorry for the sadness you’re feeling right now. B.G’s words are lovely and I hope you’ll hold them in your heart while we all send you our warmest thoughts.
Dusty,I know you’ve lost people you cared deeply for this year.
It’s just the pits, isn’t it?
Thank you, Kaye. Thank you very much.
Pari – a beautiful post to a courageous lady.
Pari,I saw this post earlier, and really didn’t know of anything I could say to comfort you, so I didn’t respond. Now I see my response will come after your friend has passed on, and I feel guilty for not trying to give some comfort, any comfort at all, when I first had an opportunity.
Several people have mentioned poems, and my first thought for a woman who seems so courageous was Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle”, but now I don’t know that it really fits. It speaks of raging against death, and yet it makes death and the fight against it the focal point. From the sound of things, your friend Cary wouldn’t want people focusing on her struggle or her death, but on the bright light that was her life and how she lived it, before and with cancer.
My prayers are with you, and with her family and loved ones. I believe she’s in a better place (regardless what she herself may have believed, cause I think God’s cool like that), and is probably regaling and entertaining others as we speak from the sound of her.
I know that’s probably of little comfort, but I do hope that, through the tears at her loss, you can still smile and maybe laugh at what you still hold of her here. Her memory. God bless.
Ah Pari, my heart breaks for you. From Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Dirge Without Music
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind.Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crownedwith lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,A formula, a phrase remains — but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curledIs the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave,Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Pari, I am so sorry to hear of this loss. But I must thank you for this introduction to Cary’s work, on the night of her departure.
I am so sorry, Pari. My heart goes out to you and to her family and friends.
This may seem odd, but I went to your website this morning and saw that lovely picture of you. I made a point of checking the photo credit and thought I might ask you about getting in touch with her. She really captured your charm and warmth. So sorry for your loss.
Oh Pari — what a beautiful tribute to a cherished friend. I’m so sorry for your loss, and for those close to Cary.
Dear Jake,Thank you for your kind words.
I’m actually all right . . . sad, but all right.
Fran,Wow.Damn right; that’s exactly how I feel.
Cary was great. Her photos were absolutely fabulous. I don’t remember if her website has the one of Bette Davis smoking, but it’s a winner.
I’m glad to have her photos on my website. Sure, they’re just of me . . . but it’s nice to look at them and remember the day we shot them — the laughter.
Thank you, Alex.
I’m very glad you’re safe and sound. I hope Toni’s not flooded.
That day was great fun. I’m so glad I asked her to take the photos. We joked a lot and I am incredibly grateful to have that memory.
That’s the bi*ch of it; who knew it’d be my last memory of her?
Thank you, J.T.
God’s speed, Cary.
Pari~This is a couple days late, but I had to comment. I am so sorry for the loss of your friend — it sounds like she was a pretty special person. Your story hit home with me especially hard today as the eight-year anniversary of my best friend Sara’s death looms next Wednesday. Sara was diagnosed with ovarian cancer halfway through our freshman year of college, and by the following fall she was gone. Sometimes — on days like today — it seems like it was just yesterday. Did you know that September is actually ovarian cancer awareness month? I for one, will be sporting my teal ribbon with pride in honor of Sara, Cary and all of the women who have battled the disease. And my thoughts and prayers will definitely be with you and Cary’s family and friends as you celebrate her life and mourn her loss.
Katherine,I don’t know if you’ll see this, but thank you so much for your note.
Ovarian cancer is such a horrid disease; it takes women young and brutalizes them in the process.
I am so sorry for your loss. May the anniversary of your friend Sara’s death bring back all the joyful memories you have of her and banish all the sad ones — at least for a day.
And, I didn’t know that about September or the teal ribbon. I’m glad to now.