The first rule of the West Philly Cancer Moms is you don’t talk about dying. The name of a lawyer who helped “get things in order” was shared but for practical purposes just like the names of a house cleaner and a therapist for the kids. I don’t know whether we did this clinging to outdated taboos about cancer and death or to protect ourselves from own our worst fears. But now that I’m the last one left it’s all I want to talk to them about. Specifically, I want to know did they have the death they wanted?
When I joined Molly and Alison three years ago for coffee in the shell-shocked days after my diagnosis, surgery, and treatment, Molly joked that we were now officially a club that no one would want to join. Yet, I was happy to be with these two women who had been diagnosed nine months earlier than I had. We didn’t know it each well but had met a few times through mutual friends and had kids the same age at the same school. And now we all had cancer.
Molly and Alison knew the ropes at the cancer center we all went to and guided me in those early days. Having cancer is an incredibly isolating because you singularly experience it, but it was comforting sharing a cup of coffee with other women — other mothers — who felt that same loneliness.
We only met as a full club a couple times. Partially because Molly’s disease progressed quickly, but I think we also found the pitying eyes that fell upon us at our neighborhood coffee shop hard to take. The club moved to texts and emails. Alison and I would get together occasionally after yoga. Both women continued multiple treatments hoping it would be the cure while I struggled with the reality of no cure and just watching the slow, steady growth of my lymphoma until it was time to retreat it.
When Molly died, Alison and I stuck to the first rule of the club. We both made sure the other heard about Molly’s death but not much more than inquiring about how her girls were dealing with the loss of their mom. I knew from a friend what Molly’s death looked like and it horrified me. Even though I hate the cancer battle metaphor, it’s appropriate here. Molly’s last days were one losing bloody battle after another with her fighting like mad to the end. I knew that her 10-year old daughter was so traumatized by seeing her mother that she stayed away during Molly’s last days. I fixated on wondering if that was the death she wanted? Was she happy with how she died? I wanted to talk to Alison about my questions, but I didn’t.
I found out yesterday that Alison died this last week. I hadn’t spoken to her since November when we bumped into each other walking our dogs in the park. We caught up on our kids and then both lamented our latest physical symptoms. Her pain from the cancer spreading to her bones. The horror of recovering from my recent tonsillectomy and getting ready for retreatment in January. We pledged to get together for coffee in the new year after I finished treatment.
Similar to when I heard about Molly’s death, I was angry about how Alison died. She had fallen and hit her head and was in a coma for her final week. It didn’t seem fair after all that she had been through in this last three and half years to die like that. To get not to say goodbye for the last time. And like with Molly, I wondered if her death was what she wanted.
I won’t ever know if Molly and Alison were happy with how they died. If they felt that had a “good death.” If it was Molly’s plan to go down swinging — fighting like hell — to show her girls how desperately she wanted to stay with them or if Alison’s fall and slipping into a coma just a few weeks after a joyous family vacation would have been an ideal way of sparing her daughters from the crippling pain and suffering of her end days.
These are questions I will never know the answer to because we didn’t talk about death in our club. I also recognize that my obsessing about these unanswerable questions is my brain’s way of protecting my heart because Molly and Alison are now gone. There is no more a club of West Philly Cancer Moms. It’s just me.
So I’m left focusing on what I do know — what made these women happy in the last years of their lives. For Molly, it was as simple as a cheeseburger delivered to her hospital bed and living long enough to experience her daughter’s adolescent angst. For Alison, it was watching her oldest flourish in college and travel the world, and her youngest find her footing in high school. It was big things like holidays and graduations and the day-to-day things like a yoga class or walks with a sweet puppy.
Maybe the reason we didn’t talk about dying in the West Philly Cancer Moms was that it was never going to be what we wanted. We could never be happy with how we’d die even if it went as planned. We talked about living because that’s where all the good stuff happens.