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A Graceful Exit
First published in Mademoiselle, July 1997
Also published in Cleo (Australia), October 1997

Three months ago, my stepmother Jeannie was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Isn't this the news we all fear the most, the thought that jars us awake at 3 a.m., the thing we finally believe is important enough to pray for? Dear God, please let this headache be anything other than a brain tumor and I swear I'll do anything. I'll volunteer, I'll be a better person, I'll even give up french fries.

If I'd just been told I had six months left on the planet, I'd be a basket case, wailing, asking, "Why me?" Not Jeannie. Deep within herself she has found a reservoir of quiet courage. She doesn't worry about herself, she worries about my dad. Is he going to be okay after she's gone? She worries about her things. Should the china go to this person or that person? Who needs it most? She chooses special mementos for those closest to her; precious little pits of her history are assigned to her grandkids, dear friends, daughters by birth and marriage. She tends to the important details, the ones that will outlive her—the ones the rest of us have not yet found the strength to deal with.

Although Jeannie sometimes needs to be hospitalized, she is happiest at home, ensconced in her front living room recently redecorated with hospital bed, oxygen, and medical paraphernalia. Her two cocker spaniels keep close tabs on her, like little guardian angels. Home hospice nurses visit every day; friends, neighbors, and family drop in regularly. She receives everyone gladly, offering a cup of coffee, a game of gin rummy, or just quiet time together. She invites the whole family for dinner at every opportunity. Even when she's not up to hostessing, she wants her loved ones near.

For me, the initial shock has not worn off. I find myself crying in unexpected places: in the movie theater as the lights go down and the credits roll. As I ride the elevator to the second-floor oncology unit at the hospital. As I lie in the tub, trying to relax and nurture myself, the way self-help books suggest. Whenever I'm in the safety of even fleeting privacy, the tears just seem to flow. Then, when I haven't thought about it for hours, while absorbed in another activity, the realizations hits me in the stomach. Jeannie is dying. This 57-year-old, wisecracking, impeccably groomed, doting grandmother of seven is dying. But reality pushes it further. It is this bald, rail-thin cancer patient who is dying. Without her usual accoutrements—beauty parlor hair, makeup, manicured nails—Jeannie looks sweetly childlike. But, as I've discovered since her diagnosis, she is as steely strong and practical as she is stripped of her former persona.

When Jeannie had a particularly frightening bout with pneumonia recently, her doctor called us at 6 a.m., telling us to come to the hospital quickly. I arrived a half hour later and stood outside the doorway of her room and listened as the doctor explained that "today might be the day." With his voice breaking, he encouraged her to ask for as much morphine as she needed, saying there was no need for her to be in pain. I clumsily broke in on this scene, crying and embarrassed that I had witnessed their discussion. Jeannie looked at me with concern and said, "It's okay, honey." We spent the morning finishing her thank-you notes for the myriad gifts and flowers she'd received. It was the thing she wanted to do most.

Jeannie's unusual and accepting response has sparked a revolutionary concept for me. Death may not be the deepest, darkest, scariest thing in the whole world. Perhaps it is simply a normal and peaceful passage. Maybe, when we get beyond it, we look back and think, "Oh, was that all there was to it?" Maybe we're somewhere nice. Maybe we're someone else. Or maybe we just cease.

It reminds me of childhood swimming lessons, all of us standing wet and shivering in line to make our first-ever jump off the diving board. We were petrified, but we knew we had to do it. We could either kick and scream and prolong it, or hold our noses and take that leap into the wild blue yonder. The elegance in Jeannie's approach to death is that she knows it is the next step in the greater plan, and she'll jump off when it's time.

While the last three months have found me alternately in shock, denial, and grief, I'm beginning (albeit haltingly) to grasp this concept. Dying is a normal part of life. Jeannie is living with dying and so are the people around her.

In the stark light of imminent death, even the mundane takes on a bittersweet importance. And so I ask Jeannie, and I really want to know, "If you could have anything in the world to eat, what would it be?"

And then I make it for her.

Epilogue, August 2003:

Jeannie died two months later, quietly, peacefully, and surrounded by family. As I stood at the end of her bed I knew I was blessed and lucky to witness this amazing event. Even at the time, in all my grief, I saw it as a birth in reverse, the completion of a circle. When she took her last slow breath, we all stopped breathing, too, listening, waiting. The next breath never came, and so we all finally exhaled a collective sigh of sorrow, and of joy at her release.