Dying: A lousy movie you can't leave

Deborah Armenti

April 09, 1992|By Deborah Armenti

Fourteen months ago Deborah Armenti was diagnosed with lung cancer. "But I can't have cancer!" she wrote here last May 22. "I'm only 35. I have two young children and a husband who need me. I need me. I have a life. It can't be cancer; there must be a mistake.

"And behind all the denials is guilt. I smoked cigarettes for 20 years. I don't exercise. I eat meat and eggs and refined sugar and flour. I use chemicals to clean my house and manage my garden.

"It's my fault. I'm 35. I'm going to die, and it's my fault. . .

"But I keep on keeping on, as the song says, and I'll try to leave my children and husband at least the legacy of a relatively normal family life for as long as I can stretch it out. I take nothing for granted anymore -- not even the ordinary."

Following is an update. A YEAR AGO I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Several weeks ago my doctor told me there is nothing further medical science can do for me. I fought the cancer successfully for six months, but when ovarian cancer developed, I began to lose hope.

I have two little children and a grieving husband. We've had a year to get used to this possibility, but nothing really prepares you for death.

When my first oncologist said only one in three respond to the chemotherapy, Bob and I rejected those odds as unacceptable. They weren't good enough, so we'd have to beat them.

Can you imagine how much more unacceptable it is to be told that you're going to die, to get your affairs in order, to call your loved ones together? It's like a lousy movie you can't walk out on. At the same time I am drawn to embrace or affirm life -- not my life in particular, but all life in general.

Bob and I have talked through the mechanics of my death.

We've discussed funeral arrangements and life insurance and retirement funds and college tuition plans. Sometimes we try to discuss my physical deterioration and how I'm doing right now. Mostly we can't talk about my health because we feel I'm living on borrowed time. I'm coping rather well, and we accept that, but we can't talk about it.

What can I say in these last weeks to my friends and family? My home is full of food and flowers and good company, and I thank them for these things.

I ask them to keep my husband and children in the bosom of their love, in memory of me. Something, maybe the love of friends or God's grace, gives me the strength to endure these last days peacefully. I see an end to my pain, but those who love me will continue to hurt after I am gone. It hurts me now to think of the pain they will continue to feel.

I've quit wondering why so many people love me. I know I'm just an ordinary woman, but the world is made up of ordinary people, and we cleave to each other. What's so wonderful or tragic is how intimately connected our lives are. There are so many who do love me that I feel quite enveloped in affection. For this I am thankful.

People don't write very much about dying. There are far more books about fighting cancer or living with cancer than there are about dying from cancer.

For most of us death is so vague that we have little or no sense of being in a state of dying. Few are ever told, "You haven't much time left." But I haven't any great insights, either.

I did not slide inexorably into a decline after I came home from my last doctor's visit. I am in home hospice care, and yet I can go out in the car with my family. I'm not going to die today. Today I'll watch "Perry Mason" on television. Today I'll read Nietzsche and Norman Vincent Peale. Today I'll eat spaghetti and green beans for dinner.

Tomorrow? Well, tomorrow is another day.

Deborah Armenti writes from Baltimore.

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