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 . . .