Kelly McKinney, a teacher at John Abbott College in Montreal, recently asked me if I would participate in her Humanities course called Views on Death and Dying. We went with an “ask me anything” format, so the students sent me their questions. I thought it would be fun to have an “ask me anything” feature on the blog, so I’ll start by posting one of the class’s most common questions with my answer, with others to follow. Then I’ll invite you to ask your own questions!
My son Oliver also bravely –and beautifully– participated in this. You’ll find his answers to their questions for him in this post: Oliver’s answers.
Below is my first one, in shorter form. If you prefer a more detailed account of that day, read this one: March 8, Surgery Date, International Women’s Day.
What was your reaction when first you found out you were going to die soon?
I was told just moments before being put under general anesthesia for surgery, so I didn’t have much time to process. Right away I thought that there must be some purpose to this, some special mission for me in the afterlife. Now I think maybe that purpose was this end-of-life work. I was also immediately very sad that I would be leaving everybody and everything I love so much, so I cried. At the same time I felt full of gratitude for the wonderful, joyous life I had had.
I hadn’t met my surgeon until that moment. She was eight months pregnant and glowing with health, sparkling with energy. I was so pleased that she was my surgeon. I remember thinking how fitting it was that I was to have my life-giving uterus removed by this pregnant surgeon on this particular day—it was March 8, International Women’s Day. That I was so sick and dying while she was so vibrant and bringing forth new life seemed to my poet’s mind a demonstration of the world’s beautiful and relentless balancing of life and death.
I was also worried about my family and how painful this would be for them. That was my first and pressing thought when I regained consciousness: I was so anxious to get back to my family to tell them I was okay even though I was dying, and that they would be okay too. I was terribly impatient in the post-op recovery room, where there was only one overworked nurse and so much to do –I was hooked up to so many things– before I could be brought back to my room where I knew my family had been waiting and worrying for hours.
Though I’ve been fortunate to have much more time since then, the mixture of gratitude and sadness, the sense of purpose, are still my primary feelings. I might add that immediately accepting my diagnosis also helped my family to accept it. And my being okay with it has helped to lessen their grief too, I think, so I’m not so worried about them anymore.