She is terminal. Almost 20 years ago she had one of the worst cancers possible (how can anyone say one cancer is worse than another? I don't know. But...), causing her to have a total hysterectomy and lose half of her small bowel. Her husband left.
She drove herself to the hospital when she discovered her pants full of blood.
Her husband never returned.
Now she is here. She survived that, so surely she can survive this. This rectal cancer. This painful, invisible EVIL that is causing her so much pain. Now, on top of it all: burns all over the lower portion of her body, from the chemo.
I am to discuss her options with her. She is not frail at all, only thin. I am taken in by her strength as soon as I cross the threshold of her room. She is in a hospital gown, pulling on sweatpants.
"Have a seat, but first help me with this." So matter-of-fact.
I help her pull her sweatpants up, find a loose shirt. She pulls her gown off, not needing my help, but allowing it. There is a spot on her lower back: red, raw, newly infected. I touch the area ever-so-slightly.
"How does it look today?"
I tell her what I see. She nods. Smiles.
She shows me these gauzy type of disposible underwear that the hospital gave her, just like the ones they gave me after having my daughter. She asks me to find out where she can get them. They are the only things that don't hurt, but tells me "If I can't buy a case, I'll just go commando."
I laugh as my eyes fill with tears. I sit in the chair as she settles onto the edge of her bed, haphazardly leaning on her left hip.
"Please don't cry."
I tell her I won't. But I sorta am. I close my eyes, pushing the vision of her lower back out of my mind.
"My name is Ms. Noble. What is yours?"
I tell her. She smiles.
"Here's my only option, in my head: I am going home. I don't want any more treatment. I want to go home and read and clean my house and sit in my backyard and spend time with my friends and family and I will be damned if I am going to wait for death to show up. Death will have to wait for me."
My eyes fill again, and she begins to giggle. Chimes in a soft breeze.
I discuss the option of hospice, and of a home health agency coming into her home to meet any needs she has. She is polite-she listens and nods in all the right places.
She asks to be discharged. She wants to go home. I can't argue with that. I won't.
She reaches across this space between us, this span of 30 years, of health & disease, of faith & fear, and places her hand on my arm. Strength and bravery are transmitted through her cold fingertips.
"You won't argue with me. I know it."
Three days later, she is walking down the hallway on her own. She lights up when she sees me.
"I have a case of those disposible undies in my room. Thank you for finding them!"
I tell her it was the central supply lady who found them.
"I am going home tomorrow."
I tell her I had nothing to do with that either. She made the decision. And I tell her I am happy for her. I ask her what she will do first, when she gets home.
"I will put on my favorite pajama pants and T-shirt, grab a favorite book, make my favorite drink, and go sit out in my backyard. I will enjoy life. I will not feel pain. I will not be afraid."
Her favorite book: To Kill A Mockingbird. Drink: A mimosa.
I walk with her back to her room, talking about books and drinks and gardens and death. I tell her I am struck by her bravery. Again: chimes in a soft breeze.
She runs her hands through her peach-fuzz head of hair.
"There's no bravery. Only love. Life. Faith."
An embrace. A smile full of light. Chimes in a final, soft breeze.
I think of Ms. Noble when I want to curl up in my bed and cry. When I want to turn away from the pain. When I wish for someone to take the discomfort of life away from me, just for a second.
I think of her, and know that I can do this. I can handle this.
I will learn to laugh like windchimes, and push the fear & pain away.