The Last Walk – Measured Steps

Our friend MIJ is desperately ill. She won’t get any better and it is really bad now. That knowledge sits so uneasily with me that it stays with me in the back of everything lately. I pester John for answers he doesn’t have and ask him to call her partner Ray for updates when I know there is not going to be any good news.

Twenty years ago, MIJ had breast cancer with a reoccurrence five years later, but with good medical intervention and diligent followups it seemed unlikely that this would reenter her life, at least not in this way. In November, she turned sixty with the kind of energy you would expect to see in an athletic forty year old. As active as I am, I always felt pleasantly tired after one of our five hour walks around Dartmoor, while MIJ never showed any signs of fatigue.

She has been in so much pain that Ray said she has given up and her doctors are now focused on just keeping her as comfortable as possible. Already a tiny slip of a woman, her weight loss is shocking when friends stop by to see her and it has been difficult to find the right dosage between controlling the pain and allowing her some lucidity in the short time she has left.

From everything we hear, she is receiving wonderful care from a compassionate medical team who spent weeks searching diligently through symptoms that were so unusual that they thought she might have something they could treat … something with a different outcome than the one she has now, a terminal diagnosis.

Mid November was the last time we saw her. I wish I had known it would be our last walk, I might have talked of other things. From all appearances, everything in her life was fine. She’d just had her sixtieth birthday becoming eligible for her state pension and we discussed the ways a bit of extra cash would be useful to her travel plans. After retiring at 58, she and Ray would often go off for six weeks at a time, walking and camping in conditions that while beautiful, would have left me grumbling. When we saw them in November, they were planning a trip to Nepal with a departure date of next month, and I listened to her explanation of why they were going there and putting off the New Zealand trip I knew she had been dreaming about.

She also told me in great detail of the new kitchen installation she had decided to go ahead with. MIJ has a doll house of a cottage and had wanted to make changes for some time, but had put it off, concerned as are most people on the edge of retirement, about money. The kitchen was finished about a week after MIJ went into the hospital. She never even had a chance to use it. My mind fixates on things like that. I tend to get stuck on thoughts such how she won’t ever cook a meal or wash a dish in the new space. I think about how she will never see New Zealand or swim again with her grandchildren. I keep thinking about how sad it all is and what she will miss.

I have been getting stuck there lately thinking about the twenty years she won’t have, but John encourages me to shift my thinking by gently reminding me of the twenty years of living she has been able to have since her first cancer diagnosis. In those years, MIJ has seen her son marry and have children of his own and she has been able build memorable relationships with her grandchildren who are old enough now to remember her when she is gone. Having twenty more years meant she had time to meet and fall in love with Ray eighteen years ago and travel to places she might never have seen had she been traveling alone.

When I came back from America early in December, I anticipated we would see Ray and MIJ for New Year’s Eve like we did last year, but around the time I began to think we should call them to make a plan, Ray called us to share the bad news. They were with us on our wedding day and I thought we would have more time. That’s often the way it is. You plan for a future that may not come and put off the things you might do or say differently if you only knew that this moment might be all you would have.

It is so natural to say, ” When I retire, I shall do ____ or when I get a new ___, I’ll be peaceful and happy,”  but if anything ever illustrated the point that we should not wait to do the things that matter, the finality of death does in it in an unmistakable way. It is that period at the end of the sentence, the full on stop that says, ” Your time is up.”

As Ray watches over MIJ in the hospital, I find my focus shifting to what we can do to help him. MIJ is getting all she needs now and is barely able to communicate more than a few words a day. He is at her side, all hours of the day, staying late into the night to keep her company as she gets ready for the final part of her journey.

Looking back over my photographs from our last walk together, I saved this one although I wasn’t really sure why at the time. It is not particularly pretty like many of the others that day, but in looking at it now I can see a future that was not apparent to any of us three short months ago.

MIJ, as you can see, walks on ahead while Ray waits, looking off in another direction. She is getting closer to the end now and I feel such sorrow thinking of her dying in a hospital bed. A still and quiet MIJ is so unfamiliar that I can’t quite get my head around it and my mind looks for something more comforting. I find it by picturing her walking, looking as I remember her best and thinking of these last days as measured steps, where MIJ is only going on before us, on a last walk alone.

22 thoughts on “The Last Walk – Measured Steps

  1. I feel for you, watching your friend go through this. She is as brave woman. Your husband is right ‘though. She has already survived twenty years. I hope that she may recover, but even so, she has done wonders already.

  2. This is so hard. Thank you, Elizabeth, for this very moving post with urgent reminders that are often regrettably forgotten in our busy little lives. My heart aches for all involved.

  3. So sorry for you Elizabeth, but how lucky you were to find a friend who meant so much to you. I’m sure she wouldn’t want you to feel bad, but be happy in remembering all the good times you shared. x

  4. I’m so sorry. My dear friend–at 26 years old–is battling an awful reoccurrence of of breast cancer that appeared a mere 3 months after her last chemo treatment from the initial diagnosis. She ministers to her friends every single day, and she is the bravest woman I’ve ever known.

    Prayers for you, for Ray, and for MIJ’s peaceful last days.

  5. My sympathies and prayers for all of you. We just saw our dear friend through her last days of metastatic breast cancer. I learned so much by watching her grace and dignity and example in suffering. Thank you for sharing her story.

  6. oh my goodness what a beautifully told story about your dear friend. this makes my heart so sad – for all involved.
    this last photo is strong given the story it holds. I pray that her last days are peaceful.

  7. Hello Elizabeth, what beautiful words at such a sad time.

    We have been away this week and returned to hear that a Mum of 3 – children from my sons school, got killed in a terrible freak accident whilst skiing.

    Also whilst we were away it was my husbands birthday. He opened a card on our return from an auntie who has had MS for 30 odd years. On the front of the card was a sports car – similar to one she had in her youth. Inside she had written ‘gone are the days….’ My husband said next time I speak to her I will say, ‘at least there were the days’

    Thank god for days, and family and friends.

  8. Elizabeth,
    Her last walk may appear alone as your friend moves into another dimension. But I think she dear friends on both sides of the doorway, to give her a loving send of and a loving welcome.

    She will carry the memory of your physical walk together, and many others, as she travels onward. Whatever you talked about when you walked together, it was enough, and it was right, for that moment. I bet should would not want to change a thing. Now, in this moment, let the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘I wish we had..’s of life drop can away and you can just be present with her in your mind and heart.

    As a terrible ruminator myself, I know how hard the letting go can be. But in the end, simply holding her in your mind and heart is going to be the best gift she can have – the best gift that any of can have – as life ends. Those that are present with us as we go through life and through the end of life give a such great gift of love. I am so glad that you have been able to enjoy your friend.

    Your blog is so aptly named, and your heart is so big. Your picture as always, tells a joyful story. It is all good.

  9. Oh, Elizabeth, I will be praying for your dear friend, her husband, family and caretakers all involved. Being a bit on the outside of a time such as this is hard to mark. I will never forget the day my mother-in-law stood in our shell of a framed out house being built next to theirs here on our family compound in the boonies. She stared out the window looking at James (her husband) outside, slugging away at work constantly. He had just hit the five year mark of surviving his lymphoma treatment when a growth was found on his neck. As she gazed out she commented that they had not just stopped and fished, or rested or taken time out, together and she started to cry. All I could do was hold on to her and be there. No words seemed to carry the load of feeling and facing the inevitable…the place where hope and faith and love are needed.

  10. Elizabeth, I join everyone else here in sending prayers to you and your friends. Your photos really convey the journey and your words are a gentle reminder that we should not put off for another day those dreams that matter the most to us.

    God bless you and your friend MIJ, I hope that she is cradled gently in His gentle embrace until all the pain goes away.

  11. This is a very nice tribute to a very dear friend. How we hate to lose those that color our life. I hope you can find comfort from the memories and the special times you had together. Wouldn’t it be nice to know when the last normal visit would be for each of our friends and family? My Mom is having a very hard time and she has become someone different. I too wish I had known the last time she was lucid with me would be our chance to talk about life and appreciate the things we had had together. Keep a good thought in your heart for those you love and love those you’ve lost.

  12. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Facing the reality of death is a hard, hard task. I lost my dad about a year and a half ago, and it has taken me up until very recently to shake some of the difficult thoughts. I am finally remembering — and able to feel — that it is important to enjoy life while we have it and occupy ourselves with gladness.

    This is a hard thing to do when you are faced with grief, however, and unfortunately we need to take that time to grieve. I hope that you will feel comfort in remembering what a blessing she was in your life.

  13. Oh Elizabeth. How heartbreaking. Your reflections and evident care for MIJ and Ray are so rich. What a sad sad time. Thinking of you and John and MIJ and Ray.

  14. There are no words to express my feelings after reading this. I, too, am losing a good friend to cancer. Her third and final time with it. She has such a brave and cheerful spirit it is hard to believe she is terminal. I just do what I can and think it is never enough. I am just thankful for our good memories and her children are just about perfect, gathering around her and making memories and comforting her with her little grandchildren. The chemo makes it hard for her and I take her treats, things to tempt her appetite. I am grateful we have been friends. So sorry for our losses to come but as I found out from my husband’s death, memories are sweet.

  15. Your eloquent words said it all – this lovely woman lived life to the full despite her illness – she bravely carried on and made every moment count.

  16. I am so sorry to hear your sad news. Losing a loved one to cancer is horrible. My mom went through it, and I currently have a very dear friend who is in the absolute final days of the battle against it. I am sending prayers and wishes of comfort and peace for you and Ray. Saying goodbye and letting go is perhaps the hardest thing ever. Thinking of you.

  17. I’m so sorry to read this – am going in reverse order but I see your dear friend has died. Please accept my deepest sympathy to all of you, especially her Ray.

    I know he will be glad for your and John’s presence — and hugs.

    Thinking of you xox

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