What Cancer Cannot Take Away

Cancer took away Elaine’s life, but it didn’t take everything. Paulette Rivait looks back over her relationship with a remarkable woman.

By Paulette Rivait

Bird and heartElaine and I weren’t best friends, but if I had to choose a best friend, it would be someone like her — warm with a calm nature. It felt good being around her.

When we met in 2006, I’d been referred to her by Carole, her best friend. Having lost a breast to cancer, Elaine needed household help until she grew stronger. I was happy to help. She recovered well but she and Rodney, her husband, got used to having a housekeeper so they kept me on for Saturday mornings. I worked for them approximately one year, but I spent most of my time with Elaine and I got to know what made Elaine the special person she was.

In time, I acquired full-time work and I stopped going to Elaine’s on the weekend. Even though she and I murmured things about keeping in touch, we lost touch.

Months later, I re-entered Elaine’s life. She had called me to ask if I’d consider working for her once again, explaining that she had back trouble. And once again, I was happy to help her.

The following Saturday I arrived and knocked on her door, excited to be seeing her again. Elaine approached the door and I watched her through the window panel alongside her front door. The woman who approached pushed a walker and looked much older than her 42 years. Astonished, I asked what happened. “This happened,” she replied as she moved a hand down her body.

At that moment, I can’t adequately describe what crossed her face as the wan smile vanished. Her face held more pain than I’ve ever seen. It lay in her eyes. “The cancer is in my back, eating my spine. I wear a brace around my chest because I would topple over without it.” I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Quickly replacing the sorrow with a smile she invited me to sit and we chatted a bit before I set off to clean her home.

One Saturday morning she said to me, “I’m not sleeping through the night. The pain so so severe. The doctors have increased the pain medication.” She would often be in bed from then on. One day Rod called me and said, “Elaine is in the hospital. She’s not sleeping.” His voice trailed off.

I went to a little shop and purchased one of the new items the store had: wooden birds, perfectly handcrafted and painted, in anticipation of spring, when life seems to spring eternal. They “went fast,” the boutique owner gushed, so I purchased two, one for Elaine and one for me. I carefully chose Elaine’s. The little bird gazed skyward. He looked as though he were watching for hope.

When I entered the long hospital corridor, I saw Carole standing outside Elaine’s room. When I reached her she hugged me, “Elaine is not doing well,” she said.

“Is that crying I hear?”
“She sobs all the time now.” Something like fear gripped me, but I said, “I have to go in there”.

Curled on her side, Elaine was old and much thinner than the last time I’d been with her, and she was stuffing a piece of bread in her mouth like it was the last piece of bread she’d ever taste, all the while sobbing. She greeted me with her soul. I know I looked scared. I whooshed the fear away and went to her side. “I have something for you,” I said, and she watched in anticipation as I unwrapped the tissue. She reached for bird, loving it. That was easy to see. Her face shone. She petted the little head and sobbed ever harder. Her other friend gently took it from her. She asked, “Where would you like it? Should we place it on the windowsill next to the tulips?” Elaine could only nod. I didn’t want her to see me dissolve so I walked to the end of the bed where I could take a breath. I looked at Carole and said, “I have to go.” You see, her husband, her family and friends had witnessed her decline that had occurred over a short time. This was a shock for me. Carole understood.

Turning to Elaine, I touched her leg and told her I was leaving. She reached down for my hand and held tight.

“I’m so sorry you’re so sad,” I said

“Paulette, I’m not sad. I’m so happy I have so many good friends!” An indelible moment. She let go of my hand and I said goodbye. I walked away. Rod, who’d observed from the doorway, returned to her side. For a long moment, I looked back to see him cradling his wife’s curled, frail body with both arms.

That warm, sunny day was the last time I saw Elaine. She died March 6, 2008. I continued to work for Rod. Elaine’s little bird sits on her kitchen windowsill, a wonderful reminder of Elaine. One year later, Elaine’s casual black and scuffed walking shoes were the first to disappear from their spot by the front door, where she had left them.

Now it is time for my sister live and die gloriously. That is “just the way it is,” sings Leonard Cohen. My sister too had a breast removed some years ago and she recovered. Now the cancer is in her bones, in her lungs, and in her liver.

To be continued…

Photo Credit

“One Last Week” tomt6788 @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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  1. avatar says

    I just lost one of my dearest friend (Lauren) who sounds so much like your friend. Thank you for sharing. I carry Lauren’s heart in my heart, today and always.

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