It was a year ago today that my friend Serena left this world for the next. I had visited her earlier that day. Even then she was already gone from this place. She had lain motionless for many days but the warmth of her hand in mine gave proof to her physical presence.
She was moved into the social room three weeks earlier when her hospital team assured that death was drawing near. “It will be tonight or tomorrow”, we we’re told, with the suggestion to call anyone who wanted to see her one last time.
Initially the room was abuzz with friends and family but the visits and visitors became less as she lingered in an emaciated, fetid body long beyond what anyone, especially her doctors, imagined possible. Only her parents were persistently present until the very end, living with her in her room. It was her mom who taught the nurses how to properly care for her daughter, how to change her dressings and clean her without causing too much distress to her painful body.
With the deepening of the disease and the amount of narcotics given in an effort to quell her pain, she wasn’t fully conscious, at least not to our sensibilities. I’d sit by her bedside and watch her face, trying to comprehend where she was retreating to, while recalling the late night conversations we use to have into the early morning hours. Now she was quiet. I could see through the slight opening in her mouth that her tongue had turned ashen white. It had the appearance of a pumice stone, shriveled and hard from lack of moisture.
It was frustrating not being able to talk, but one day I realized we could still communicate, without our tongues. On that day she told me that she was scared, that she did not want to die. This was evident to all of us who we were astonished at her tenacity in holding on for dear life. The doctors were confounded at how she was managing to survive despite her deteriorating condition.
It had been weeks since she had received nourishment yet she continued breathing and struggling to stay alive. At times it looked as if she was gritting her teeth to prevent her last breath from escaping her body. Serena had once fasted for 52 days – until she reached 106 pounds – the weight that a former lover whom she still pined for told her was ideal for her stature. Her ability to forgo food for a prolonged period may have been a contributing factor in her staying power.
While sitting with her in the hospital, and for months following her death, comments that she had made to me, floated back into focus. Pieces of a seemingly cryptic puzzle started to fit together into a plausible reason why such a vibrant person left her life in what seemed a sudden, inexplicable manner, at 56 years of age.
Serena, who as a young woman was married to a famous Chilean rock star, was physically attractive. She seldom painted her face, nor did she ascribe to the glamour or fashion notion of beauty. She did however, cover the silver that infiltrated her brown hair and dressed youthfully. Like many women, she didn’t want age to steal her beauty. One day – her dark eyes looking troubled – she told me that men did not look at her the way they use to. “When I lived in Hawaii, I got a lot of attention from men. Now no one notices me.” Coupled with a series of failed relationships, it seemed that she had lost her sense of self-worth.
“On an attractiveness scale of 1-10, I think I’m probably a 7, and you may be an 8” she proclaimed one day. Out of nowhere statements related to her appearance would come and just as quickly recede. They always caught me by surprise so I seldom gave much thought or response to them, but later I could see that it was something that was eating at her.
Menopause took a cruel toll on her, which was likely partly due to her fear of growing older. She once told me that a woman in her 20’s elatedly exclaimed how much she could learn from a crone like Serena. What was given as a compliment was considered an insult.
Once upon a time it would have been a compliment. Elder women, grandmothers, and crones played an important role in the community. Indeed, they have a great deal to teach the younger generations. It is evident in many societies that this role is not being fulfilled today. If women obsess on retaining youth rather than embracing the role of an elder, who will provide guidance and leadership?
It’s understandable, my friend’s fear of growing old, in a society where aging women are often passed up in favor of their younger counterparts. In conversation with a woman about this issue a few days ago, she told me that one of her clients said her husband, bag in hand standing at the front door, said he was leaving her for a younger woman. He gave no warning, offered no explanation, there was no conversation.
Women fear growing older because they fear not being loved. Not being worthy of love. The multi-billion dollar beauty industry sends women this message. Cover the gray, botox the wrinkles, hide signs of growing older with anti-aging creams, lotions and potions. The message is clear: we don’t like the way you look, please do something about it so that your appearance is more acceptable to the world.
There were a few other pieces to the puzzle too. Serena was childless and on one occasion told me she’d have no one to care for her when she grew old. In her younger years she traveled the world extensively with no time to settle down and raise a family. She said she always thought she’d have time for that later and when later came it was too late.
Lack of her own family, and the issue of finances, suddenly became concerns for her when menopause consumed her energy and motivation. When I met her five years earlier she was carefree, always wildly laughing and in love with life. It was the two years preceding her death that I watched her slowly stop participating in it. She was overwhelmed by it. Completely overwhelmed by every facet of her life.
So when the cancer came, and plopped itself onto her vulva, and she was told the only solution was to cut it away, to basically dissect her femaleness, it consumed her with fear. I think she sensed something had invaded her body long before the cancer presented itself, but like her pending death, she tried to deny it, wish it away. It was a long time before she would admit that she had cancer to anyone. Heavily influenced by the film “The Secret”, she told me talking about the cancer would give it power, make it proliferate. She visited psychic after psychic trying to comprehend why she had been stricken. While none could provide her with that insight, there was an interesting phenomenon. Most all of them said the same thing – that she was blocking healing.
As I watched her wither away and go back to the place where we all come from, I pondered the paradox. She had stopped participating in her life, but once she realized she was dying she fiercely clung to it, denying the seriousness of her condition, refusing to believe she was dying. One of her doctors said she couldn’t figure out why someone with Serena’s sense of spirituality was not going into death with grace, why she was fighting it.
She fought because she wanted to live, but she wanted her old (younger) self back. Her vitality, her passion, her joie de vivre. She worked hard to get it back refusing surgery, opting for less invasive therapies. This resulted in exhausting battles with some of her friends who were furious that she would not submit to the surgery and essentially allow herself to be castrated. They could not understand why she would not acquiesce and settle for a life less than the one she had already resigned herself from.
What made my friend beautiful was her spirit – it shone through in the brightness of her eyes when she smiled. The way she attracted people to her with her generous, gregarious nature, she made look effortless. She cared about people. She had once told me that she wanted to return a bodhisattva to help suffering beings. Maybe she’s back doing that now; the earthly plane is in desperate need. I hope she starts with the cancer of a misogynist mindset that undermines the wisdom of women in favor of their physical appearance. That she helps young girls understand that their beauty is in their consciousness, their dreams, in their compassion. So that they will not ever feel the desire to purge anything from their body but the lies that belittle and scar them for being female.