I made a friend this summer. Her family called her Amay (it’s Mongolian for grandmother). She was homebound, and I checked in on her while her family was gone on a trip. It started as a favor, but we became friends. She was full of humor and had a generous heart. I enjoyed spending time with her.
One day in September Amay stood up and the bones in her back crumbled. That was how she found out she had stage 4 cancer. It was everywhere, and there was nothing anyone could do.
I was drawn to sit with her while she was sick. She told me stories of her life, joked about her symptoms, and talked about death. She was confident in her Savior and ready for heaven. I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the slightest holding her hand and listening. I wasn’t worried about what to say or how to be. I knew there wasn’t an easy way out. There were no pat answers to make this better, to soothe her pain or provide dignity as she lost her ability to do basic things. Looming death made each of her days real, all pretenses removed. Her courage was refreshing. Even in her last weeks she was teaching her grandkids one more thing…how to face death with hope. Her friendship has been a gift to me.
Finally I can identify a positive change as a result of what I’ve been through the last year. My troubles have stripped away taboos and tensions around the subject of death. Before I lost a child I would not have been able to reach beyond my anxiety of words like “cancer” and “terminal” to see Amay, both who she was and what she was facing. I would have been concerned, and sad for her suffering. I would have said something like “let me know if you need anything” to her family. My intentions would have been good, but I doubt I would have made a sincere effort to be present. I wouldn’t have known what to say. I wouldn’t have known how to look her in the eyes, both of us aware that soon the cancer would win it’s mutiny against her body.
But I’ve learned how to be still with grief. I’ve made some discoveries about what is comforting, and I’ve seen how well-meaning people can inadvertently add to sorrow. I’m no longer afraid to come close to someone who is suffering in circumstances without answers.
Amay died on Wednesday.
Two weeks ago she called her family around and asked their permission to let go. They talked and cried. She has lived with them for 10 years, long enough so her grandkids don’t remember life without her there. At the end of the conversation, in the whisper of a voice she had left, she told them to crowd in for a group selfie. She makes me laugh.
I will miss her.