What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us. – Helen Keller
A note from Bobbi: This post was adapted from a talk I gave at Breast Cancer Connections in Palo Alto, Ca. The theme was Remembrance.
When I started thinking about what I wanted to say in regard to remembrance, I did what I often do: turn to my etymological dictionary.
What? You don’t immediately turn to your etymological dictionary?
At first, I looked at the word remember and I was told that it has always meant “to recall, be mindful of.” Then I looked at remembrance, rather expecting the same thing. But, instead my dictionary told me that the old French version of remembrance meant “souvenir, keepsake.”
Ah, I had forgotten this definition.
And I started to think about what keepsakes I held of my late partner, Ruth.
Which ones meant the most to me?
Was it her writings?
I still love to see her handwriting and remember the day a few years ago that I found a very special bit of her writing.
I was going through some boxes, looking for something else, when I turned over a sheet of paper. I was surprised to discover that I had never seen this before despite having gone through her things many times since her death.
As I looked at it, I caught my breath.
Our finest hour
Ruth had made a copy of a picture from a magazine with a quote beneath it. The picture was of a WWII Spitfire airplane and the quote was from Winston Churchill in 1940. It read:
I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
It was, of course, an inspirational quote. But what made me gasp was what Ruth had written under it dated two months after her diagnosis:
I expect that my battle with cancer is about to begin. The whole fury and might of this disease is soon to be turned on me. Let me therefore brace myself to my duty and so bear myself that if my life should last a thousand years, people will say, “This was my finest hour.”
I treasure that piece of paper and the courage with which Ruth approached her cancer. But is it the keepsake that I cherish the most?
Perhaps it is the few pieces of clothing that I just couldn’t part with. Her large red cotton button-down shirt she always wore as a light jacket. Her winter coat that was worn and shabby but she loved it, so it stays in my closet rather than going to Goodwill.
The goofy army-issue winter hat with ear flaps that friends had given her when she was bald from chemo. Her friends put a faux diamond brooch on the front flap and then hung dangly, gaudy earrings from the ear flaps.
Ruth was very proud of that hat.
Are the clothes my favorite keepsake? Or the pictures? The one of her with a huge knife in her hand, poised above the Thanksgiving turkey as though she were Norman Bates? The one of her in a pink jacket and pink panama hat, leading the October “Paint the Town Pink” celebration? The one of her with her dog, Trevor, the stray we had found and about whom Ruth asked me, “Can we keep him?”
Or maybe the best keepsake is the jewelry. Is it the ring that she surprised me with one spring afternoon as we sat overlooking a beautiful valley? Or the one I gave her that I resized to fit me after she died?
Or is it the poignant and lovely gifts that people gave her to cheer her on her path with cancer? I love and value all of these things so highly that I still have them after eight years and can’t imagine ever parting with them.
Give in without giving up
But, when I think about keepsakes, about remembrances of Ruth, the thing I cherish the most is, surprisingly, not the things that I can touch, but the souvenirs in my mind: my memories of her. Of her and us together and the richness of life that was enhanced exponentially with her cancer.
For, you see, we were blessed to have a most wise and gentle oncologist who, at the beginning of the journey when we were both scared and railing against the toxic chemotherapy, sat quietly on his little rolling stool in the exam room and listened.
Finally, he looked Ruth directly in the eyes and said softly, “Ruth, don’t resist. Don’t resist the healing that the chemotherapy can bring you. Don’t resist any part of the process. Put your energy into living this moment rather than fighting the chemotherapy.”
Ruth and I looked at each other. Don’t resist? But everyone had been telling us to fight the cancer, to imagine little SWAT teams in her body destroying the tumors. Don’t resist?
Then, we got it.
We didn’t have to fight. We could give in without giving up and go with the path that cancer set before us.
Our lives changed. We released the grasping and controlling and fighting to get back to where we were pre-cancer and, instead, learned to enjoy the moment and look forward to what was next.
And with our new motto of “don’t resist,” we were able to name things as they were, including the realities of her cancer.
When life became so rich
After being cancer-free for several months following her first chemo regimen, Ruth’s cancer returned. With tears, we let go of any denial and acknowledged openly that, sooner or later, this cancer would end Ruth’s life and our life together.
And this is when life became so rich.
There was nothing between us that was unsaid. We spoke of her death with curiosity and humor and completely freaked out the people around us.
Without the disadvantage of thinking we had all the time in the world, our conversations became meaningful and intimate.
We talked about her life and my future and what it would be like without her. She was always sure to end these conversations by looking at me very seriously and saying, “And don’t forget to water the plants.”
Sometimes, during a quiet evening at home, I would look over at her and say, “I wish we could always stay together,” to which she would take my hand and reply, “I do, too.” Then, she would give me a wry smile and say, “Maybe next time around.”
And in between the deep conversations about life and love and death, life went on. We walked the dog and went to work and shopped for groceries. And Ruth watered the plants.
At times we quarreled but most of the time we laughed and occasionally we cried.
But each of these ordinary moments in life seemed brighter and bigger because we finally understood that the moment was only there while it was there and then it was gone, replaced by another precious moment. Another miraculous chance to walk the dog and shop for groceries and water the plants.
The memories I cherish the most
And so, when I think about all of the keepsakes I have of Ruth, of the remembrances, these are the memories I treasure the most: the conversations that were real and deep and intimate, the everyday moments – both the good and the bad -, the constant laughter, and the love that was present in all of these things.
Helen Keller once said, “What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
And so, as you consider your own keepsakes for both the present and the future, remember to love deeply and honestly, for these will be remembrances you never lose.
Remember to give in but not give up – to not resist the path that is set before you, for it is there you will find your most treasured keepsakes.
And finally, remember to brace yourself for your duty of creating miraculous moments so that others will say this was your finest hour.