In memory, 6th March 2012

Denise at Liberty State Park, New Jersey, 2003

This day, a year ago, was Denise’s last. She had recently gotten an air-vent mattress that made things a lot more comfortable for her, although she still needed help to shift around in bed and to turn.

It sounds horrible to say, but I had gotten used to see her like that, in the bed, totally dependent on help. It’s hard to imagine that was the same self-assured, strong-opinioned woman who had walked into my life 9 years earlier. When did the self assurance disappear?

I remember the first time she was on the cancer ward. She got the other ladies in the same room together; they formed a small self-help group, they kept in touch afterwards, and that was all due to Denise. That’s the kind of person she was back then. A heart with so much room for everybody, and a determination to be kind to those who deserved it (and an equal determination to not give a fuck for those who deserved that). She was STRONG, stronger than anyone I have ever met.

When did the disease take that away from her? I don’t know. It happened so gradual, so slowly over the years.

After her last hospital admission, in February, I think, she needed a wheel chair to get to the car. She had given up by then. The last couple of visiting days at the hospital, she just wanted to sleep.

Such a difference from her first or second hospital admissions, where she gave me lists of treats from the deli she wanted, and made me go get ice cream from the best shop in town, wrap it in paper and in a freezer bag, and rush it to the ward so she could cool her mouth with it. She loved that. But then, just a year or couple of years later, nothing.

That FUCKING disease took so much of her dignity away from her, but it never made her undignified. It took everything it could, and it certainly did it’s very best (or worst), but the one thing she held on to was her kind heart, and self esteem. We had nurses in and out of the house that day, a year ago. She was in quite a lot of pain, but yet had the surplus energy to ask them how they were doing, wanting news about one of their colleagues who had recently retired to New Zealand. She was a Lady, with a capital L.

She had had bowel troubles for a few days, and was scheduled for an enema on the next day. It’s so easy to second guess yourself, but so hard to find the right answers. Would it have made her last days easier if I had made a big fuss and insisted on it happening right away? Or would that just have been one more indignity done to the helpless body of a once-proud woman. It’s amazing what life boils down to sometimes. Eat. Shit. Remove one, and pretty soon it’s over.

That last day, and the evening, when I had to call for nurses asking for stronger and stronger morphine injections, has played in my mind so many times that by now I’m no longer sure what is facts and what is fiction. I have been carrying a huge guilt complex around. She was terrified of the ER and the medical emergency ward (bad experiences from a year yearlier), but should I have ignored her wishes? I tried to suggest calling an ambulance, but she wouldn’t hear about it. Or when she actually died, I was holding her hand, seeing brown dripple seep out of her mouth, was I right to hold her and talk to her, or should I have been on the phone trying to get an ambulance then? Would one had made it, and if it did, would she have died later that night alone in a white room with tubes, rather than in the little house we shared? Through inaction, I made a choice, rightly or wrongly. Theraphy has made me accept that I did what was seemed right, but till this day it still haunts me.

She had stopped eating, and was living on jelly and constantly smaller quantities of nutritional drink. In the end, she was so weak that I had to go buy a plastic cup for water, she couldn’t lift glass, and it came with a cover to help, well I don’t know what it was helping for, but I drilled a hole in the cover so she could have a straw sticking up from it to help her drink.

At a Motown tribue event, 2009 (she was so proud of getting natural curls when her hair came back the first time)

And when I think back to just a few years earlier, I think of this strong, independent woman. She’d been dealt some good and a few bad cards by life. Her big heart had led her to waste to much time and energy on people who didn’t deserve it. She knew that. Maybe that’s why she was so keen on pets. The first time she drove me from Newark Airport onto the Jersey Turnpike, cutting 2 huge trucks up, swearing like a sailor, accellerating her old junk car until the pistons nearly came through the bonnet (or should I say hood?), with a wide grin on her face. ALIVE!

During the last year or so, after she had been found too sick to a medical research project and had rejected more chemo, while we could both read the writing on the wall, although I tended to pretend to be blind (she was much stronger and much more honest than I), she kept saying that I should find someone else. Look after yourself, water my plants, look after my pets, and find another woman, or I’ll back come and haunt you. Not sure how well I’m doing overall, but two thirds of the pets are still here, and even though I sometime sense her presence (yeah, I also used to think the idea of ghosts was crazy, but not anymore), it doesn’t feel like a haunting experience, more like a kind, encouraging, warm feeling.

It’s been a rubbish year in many ways. But as someone answered when asked “how’s life?”, it sure beats the alternative.

Denise was a firm believer in Jesus. She had a hystorectomy and liver-scrape, and the nurses at St Barts were amazed how little she used her morphine pump. But she told them that as long as the pain was bearable, she’d be happy to take the pain, in the firm belief that someone else would be better off. There were two young girls at the hospital at the same time, who had been through a terribe ordeal. Denise was offering up her pain for their sake, and for the souls at purgatory. Now some say that religion is nothing but organised manipulation of the masses, but to her, the belief in a kind, loving God, the belief that she could make a difference, that was very, very real. And it gave her a huge amount of strength, and helped her keep her dignity through one of the worst diseases known to mankind.

If you’re religious, please remember Denise’s soul next time you pray. If you’re not, please send a good thought her way anyway.

Rest in peace, Denise, and may God have mercy on your soul.