(*photo credit to Nattu*)
Her hair, spectacular orange, looked like fire. It was long and wavy and fierce: strands and strands of it, wild and unwashed, sweeping across her forehead and covering the pillow. The irony, I guess, was that there was so much life in it: so much life, and yet she lay, still and frail and confused, savaged by the brain tumour. Dying.
She was beautiful: big, doe-like eyes that I was sure once sparkled. Soft, round cheeks that weren't always tinted grey. Plump, rosy lips. The kind of woman my Grandma would have described as an english rose. She was beautiful. Beautiful. And broken.
I think about her often because she was only five years older than me, and because she was the first person I'd come across who was dying and looked, well... Like she was dying. There was no hope or vigour, no odds that she was going to surpass, no battle she was going to win.
This woman: she wore the scars of her diagnosis, of time, of trying. I got the impression that she was still heavily affected by the injustice of it all. How those two gorgeous, mischievous pre-schoolers would have to live without her comforting kiss whenever they grazed their knees or failed a test. How her husband would have to fall asleep without the dance of her fingertips on his chest and buy their daughter's first tampons in years to come. How she was so young and so full of kindness and generosity and fierce love for them all, and how she was, so cruelly, about to be taken from them. The sense of sadness in that room was almost palpable. I remember feeling the sting at the back of my eyes when I sat down, wincing a little at the weight of it.
But. In spite of everything, they wanted to share their story: to talk about the remarkable hospice care they'd received in the hope that they might teach or inspire others to think differently. That, in itself, was something. A desire to create a little good from such bad, because sometimes, that's the only thing that we have to cling onto. This idea that our suffering could, somehow, enrich the life of someone else.
The thing that touched me the most, however, were the words of her husband. He paused, for a moment, during our chat, when I directed his attention to the stunning family portrait that hung at the end of her bed: the four of them clinging to each other, laughing; giddy and happy and carefree.
He turned his head and squeezed her hand and he said, 'we're so lucky. We have been so lucky.' And I could tell from how his eyes lit up and from the gentle, proud smile that teased at the corner of his lips, that he meant it. That he felt it with every fibre of his soul.
It floored me, if I'm honest. I still think of it now and again and it brings the same sting to the back of my eyes: the enormity of what he said that day whilst knee deep in unimaginable shit. That in their heartbreak: in the devastation of it all, in the very room that his wife and the mother of his children would die in less than a week later, he could be still be grateful, so purely grateful, for having even known her at all. Grateful for how their eyes had first met during a biology seminar at uni a decade before, when she was shy and gawky and determined to change the world. Grateful for how she did change the world, and everything in it, simply by loving him. Grateful for every last second he had spent with her before his future, their future, was reduced to minutes and hours and hushed conversations about what flowers she might like at her funeral and how he should explain it to the children.
I saw, that day, bravery and strength beyond my own comprehension and I remember, afterwards, that I went and shut myself in a toilet cubicle and just cried and cried and cried at the rawness of it all. At this young woman and this young man, and their love, and the grief, and the unfairness of it all, and how, perhaps, we are far more resilient than we think.
There is a great deal of hope to be taken from it, I believe. That even in the very darkest of places, people can find a slither of light: something that stops them from dying too.