Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT” series.
“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” -Edna St. Vincent Millay
I lost someone on May 29th 2020.
I lost a friend I never saw in person—only in photos.
I lost a close friend whose physical voice I heard on a single occasion, when she activated the Voice Call function while we were using Facebook Messenger. We had been close for about fourteen months when she did this.
You get used to a person when you rely on messaging online. You think of their distinctive way of messaging—the grammar and rhythms of it—as them. And then you hear their actual voice, those vibrations from their own vocal folds, and it’s like someone pressed a high-powered “refresh” button. Suddenly, there is more of everything: more of their distinctiveness; a sense of their age; of their cultural background; their temperament. They are there—incarnate.
And so we talked a while longer, getting used to the surprise of this experience. She did sound a lot like I thought she might, in the sense that her voice betrayed her age a little—or maybe it was just her polite, slight formality. She was surprised that I sounded as young as I did (she was 74, the age difference between us is thirteen years; we might have sounded more alike but I just have a higher voice). We never repeated the experiment.
Her name was Gwenyth, a name that sounds Welsh to me (well, maybe more so if the e and y switched places). In Welsh (I just looked it up), “Gwen” means: white, bright, fair, pure, blessed, holy”. I’ve always been swayed by the meaning of names. I was, after all, named after an archangel.
She wasn’t Welsh, though. She was born and grew up in New Zealand, but she lived more than half her life in Sweden. She married several times and had a bunch of daughters. Her third and last husband—who has outlived her though he is eleven years her senior— is the one she spoke to me about. The one who mattered. She called him her “safe harbour”.
How did Gwenyth become my friend? We found each other through Facebook, at Michelle’s Blog Page; or more precisely, at my THIS IS THE MOMENT series link there, that I began very soon after my cancer diagnosis. But…the odds against such a bond ever forming between us are incalculable. How could a woman sitting in front of her computer in southern Sweden have stumbled upon the unadvertised, inconspicuous blog of a woman living on the outskirts of Montreal ? I don’t know, and I never thought to ask Gwenyth. After reading my post titled EXPANDING CIRCLES which appeared on January 5th 2019, Gwenyth posted this comment:
January 13th 2019
I found your blog today. Thank you for sharing your experience. I too have agreed to wander down the chemotherapy road. I want to be well informed about what is coming and your blog contains valuable information. It is quite frightening but other people have come through it and I will do my best to do it as well as I can. But at the same time, I have to try to live in the present as well as I can. Your blog provides information and experience that I feel will be useful as I wander down this scary path.
It is just three months since I found out that I had cancer. I had an open Right Hemicolectomy eight weeks ago and my first cycle of FOLFOX adjuvant chemo on Monday 7th January 2019. On Friday this week I also got my port-a-cath installed. In a week I will get the second cycle dosed through the port.
I too have decided to write a blog. It is partly because I have my children and grandchildren in countries on the other side of the world and in this way I can help them feel part of it all. Thank goodness for broadband internet and social media! I also want to be able to look back on it all afterwards and remember the feelings, stages , pain, and hopefully moments of joy I went through during the chemotherapy.”
There’s a lot of Gwenyth in this first contact: her directness, her honesty, and a bare bones, very precise, quite technical way of describing herself and her predicament. I had no idea who she was or where she was writing from, so I replied:
January 13, 2019, at 9:08
I’m very happy that you found my blog.
I suppose that things seem frightening at first, when we read about the experiences of others, but I try to make my posts honest, but NOT discouraging or frightening, because it hasn’t been my experience. What makes all the difference is the support you get from your family, friends…everyone who lends a hand or just brings more love to you.
Please let me know when you’ve begun posting your texts…I’d very much like to read them.
Till then, good luck and please come to the blog regularly. Perhaps we can help each other. Xo”
But what pulled her right into my daily life, and into the place in my heart that had been waiting for her, were a few lines written on my Facebook home page, sometime before January 20th 2019, in which she wrote:
“[…] I haven’t yet learned how not to be afraid.”
* * *
When someone you love dies—whether family or friend—you’re left with photos and cards, certainly, but mostly, you’re left with memories of them and your time with them. Important dates on the calendar, perhaps, and more importantly, memories of their presence in your life: the impromptu phone calls, the lunches, the hand held in tough times, the reassuring hugs, the shared worries about loves, children, and—when a friendship grows into a decades-old bond—even grandchildren. There are funerals attended in support of each other, hospital visits, things borrowed and returned, deep dark secrets revealed face to face, an arm around the other’s shoulder. Over time, you witness the ups and downs of their weight, the greying of their hair, the lines forming around their eyes, the dark marks on the skin of their hands left by exposure to the sun. You have it all: the smells, the colours, the textures, the sounds (especially of their laughter). Your memory banks are full of all of these things which are probably interwoven with memories of other people you love. Your brain has done the curating of the vast shared experience of your relationship.
But my friendship with Gwenyth—as inconceivable as it seems to me—consists of written correspondence and a single voice contact that was not recorded.
On May 29th , just a few days ago, a notification from Gwenyth appeared in my Facebook Messenger. I instantly opened it—it had been weeks since I’d heard from her and I knew she was beginning to fail. But the message wasn’t hers. It was from her eldest daughter:
“Dear Michelle It is [… ] here, Gwenyth’s daughter. [Gwenyth’s husband] has asked me to send you a reply. We are so sorry to let you know that mum passed away 29 May. But now she is at peace and pain free. You can mail me to chat a little more at […] Thank you for your valued friendship with mum.”
I did email her. Immediately. Several exchanges between us followed. Gwenyth’s daughter is warm and kind and I learned what I needed to know about my dear friend’s last days.
When this happened, Simon was nearby, and heard me say “Oh!” and then whimper. I just remember telling him in few words that Gwenyth was gone. He moved toward me and held me. He knew what this loss meant to me. He understood all of the ways that this would reach into me.
Since then, I’ve spent hours tracking down every particle of Gwenyth—ever bit and byte—because that is how she was with me; it’s the form she had. I had her comments on my personal Facebook page; I had the emails we shared when a subject was so dear to us, or so difficult, that a more formal writing space was required. I had the public messages she left at my blog site, and the private ones she also sent through Michelle’s Blog Page, especially at the beginning, when her need for contact and her need to share her cancer experience was great but her sense of privacy and emotional modesty were still getting in the way.
And I had a jolting thought: what if her family took down her Facebook page quickly? I couldn’t bear the thought of almost every contact we ever had vanishing overnight—untraceable. So I’ve spent several days since then trying to track it all down, copying and pasting all of it into a file. It’s a document of roughly 110 pages. Incredibly, for me, it’s Gwenyth. I haven’t known her any other way, and yet, she was my very dear friend.
When I printed up every last page of our friendship, every trace of it there is, it was like creating an ash-filled urn, because it has physical substance, weight, form. I can touch it, hold it, and feel a connection with Gwenyth. But it also looks like the manuscript of a narrative, which it is. And it tells a precious story.
* * *
Gwenyth was not supposed to die before me. That’s the beginning of our story and it’s a fact. Her cancer was less advanced than mine, her tumour(s) confined to her colon, whereas my cancer had already established itself in my liver and lungs by the time I was diagnosed. There is no bleaker diagnosis than stage IV cancer.
In her earliest Facebook message to me on January 20th, 2019, Gwenyth wrote:
“I am stage III. Cancer cells in some of the lymph nodes but none obvious in the cell walls. No indication of any cancer in other organs. My surgeon says they think they got it all and the chemo is an insurance in case there are any “rogue” cancer cells floating around. So my prognosis is good. It is not death that I fear, it is the next year getting sicker and then better.”
And yes, when I first read these words, I thought: Lucky you!!! , and Wouldn’t it feel wonderful to be able to lean on that knowledge?
But Gwenyth had once again confided her fear to me, and without knowing exactly what its shape was, she was sharing her fragility with me; entrusting her disquiet to me. It seems clear now, that it’s in this way that she opened the doors wide to our friendship.
From the very beginning, chemotherapy was a torment for her. It ravaged her. For a few more months, she endured it. Eventually, it was stopped altogether. Her body’s resources were exhausted. And then, in April 25th, 2019, I received the following message from her:
“BEST NEWS EVER! The oncologist doctor says that I no longer have cancer and I don’t need to take anymore Chemotherapy tablets. She will hand me back to the surgery department for normal surgery follow-up care.”
“BRAVO!!!BRAVO!!!BRAVO!!! Now step out from under the shadow of the disease and live in the light of joy and love and make a long list of things that mean a lot to you and that you’d like to do or try…and make that your new life, I’M OVER THE MOON FOR YOU !!!” You’ve made my morning. Xoxox”
“We all wept for joy and the doctor handed out tissues, again, but for different reasons this time!”
“I BET! That’s just wonderful news!
I may not see you at the blog anymore (because I’m sure you’d like to move past this recent traumatic period), but we can always message! Xoxoxo Do something fun and lighthearted every day.”
“I would love to keep up the contact. You have been a very important person in my life—thank you for that. It would be wonderful if you too would get good news when your Chemotherapy is completed.”
“It would indeed. Xoxoxo
So far, so good.”
* * *
And we did keep up the contact. The time between April and the confirmed return of her illness in late November 2019 is a period during which cancer was no longer the leitmotif of our correspondence. Gwenyth and I were given the luxury of discovering in just how many ways we were birds of a feather.
“My life before I came to Sweden […] was not at all successful. If you want to know about that, I can tell you about it later when we come to know each other better. So we can begin in January 1976 […]
Gwenyth left New Zealand in 1975, at the age of 30, not speaking a word of Swedish. She took classes along with 16 other immigrants from South America and Yugoslavia.
“ I came to Sweden with a bag full of clothes and a heart full of love feeling like Ruth in the bible—’your land will be my land and your people will be my people’. So romantic and so naïve!”
(How wonderful, I thought, when I read this: she was one of “my people”, which is how I’ve always thought of my adult FSL students). Eventually, she was proficient enough to undertake studies in chemical engineering, graduating in 1983.
“It was one of the biggest things that has happened in my life. I had lifted myself, with a little help from my friends, from considering myself dumb and a failure to knowing that I was as good as anyone else, had an education and that I could live on no matter what happened in my life.”
Over time, her career path shifted to specialized technical writing, where her bilingualism was a huge advantage. In one of our earlier Messenger conversations, she told me how, in 2006, she had started her one-woman consultancy company and worked for Ericsson in Stockholm for a few years. But she made me smile when she wrote that she:
“ […] also ran conversational English classes for companies and government departments”, adding:
“So I understand completely what you mean by it being exciting but exhausting. Yes, I agree that it requires a lot of energy and it is almost like getting them to act a role. […]
* * *
Facebook Messenger, February 28th, 2020—post relapse
“Dear Michelle, Long time – no write. Have been through a bit of a down patch but seem to be emerging from it now. None of this is as bad as my memory of chemotherapy. I have just read your last blog. I know that I have now let go of the need to be busy which is part of the Christian culture in which we, in the Western world are brought up.
I am and that is enough. For me and for those who love me. This week we have done things like lawyers, will [etc.] We also made arrangements for what will happen after I die.
Today we visited the cemetery and the memory garden for urns of ashes. We chose a lovely spot in the forested part where it is quiet and green. It was there I discovered my current purpose in life. The process today didn’t worry me. I know I will die soon and am at peace with that. But […] , my daughter got upset. I suddenly realised that for me this will all stop when I die but for [my husband] and my daughters, life will go on. So my purpose in life just now is to be here, just as yours is. That is enough for those who love you.
Your loving friend, Gwenyth”
My response, same day
Your message arrived in the evening, so I know that it was quite late when you sent it…I am so grateful that you thought of me.
It seems that you had a day of meaningful actions, deep feelings and thoughts, of clarity of mind and of peace. Everything you wrote to me, here, is Truth. And Beauty. And Love.
I keep rereading each passage. I suppose it’s true that chemotherapy distorts our time with cancer, and throws us into a life where treatment is ever-present and like a cage from which we cannot escape.
Your friendship, your honesty, your faithfulness to our transatlantic bond have given me the chance to share the experience with an initiate—someone who KNOWS. It is very precious to me.
It has been fascinating to me how quickly and courageously you made the transition from fear to lucid, wholehearted acceptance. You have such dignity.
“I am and that is enough” should, I believe, be the constant mantra of every human being.
I don’t know if my search for daily purpose is part of my Catholic upbringing…You know, Gwenyth, the strongest pulse in me, the deepest drive, is maternal. My sons have a lot of this in them too. They are nurturers […].
I was a tomboy as a child and yet even then, the only thing I was sure I wanted from the future was to be a mother—to have children.
It influenced all of my decisions, and it transformed how I taught my students—children AND adults. It was always about caring about them; making them feel seen and valued; believing in them; making the space we shared a safe space…
It didn’t always work out perfectly, but I feel pretty sure that their memories of our time in class are good ones, a time and place when they believed in themselves and never felt diminished. And I think they feel as loyal to me as I do to them.
And now, I feel that maternal, nurturing energy sitting idle. The roles have reversed. My children are now taking care of me.
My grandchildren are growing up (by next month, they’ll be 6 and 8), and won’t have seen their grand-maman as much as they used to or in the same way they used to because I don’t always feel very good…
(I’ve just started crying while I type this. My God. These things run so deep in us don’t they?)
Hrrrmmm! (that’s me clearing my throat).
I cannot take care of the people I love the way I want to, and this is very hard to live with.
But what it is teaching me is that there is grace in receiving, in accepting the love and help of others, and that I don’t have to justify the taking.
I’m getting there.
I think that’s why I finished the blog with thoughts of kindness. If I can walk a path of kindness and compassion and patience…If I can SMILE and BE, in a way that helps others to feel SEEN and accepted and loved…then I can let go of life more easily…and even more importantly, I can leave everyone I care about unburdened and at peace.
It’s a very tough challenge. “
* * *
Eighteen months is such a short lifespan for a friendship, but I really do feel that we made the most of it. Messages sent back and forth between us during the last year especially touched on everything from:
- The pleasures of maple syrup: one delicious spoonful at a time for me, and poured over “thin, Swedish pancakes” for her, to…
- Gwenyth’s adventures astride Selma, the bicycle she bought after her move to the city and rode everywhere possible, even through the winter of 2020, to…
- The discovery of our shared love of the original three Star Wars movies.
On January 3rd, 2020, Gwenyth wrote:
“I once worked in a huge global development project at Ericsson that was christened “Skywalker”. All of the sub-projects were named after characters from the film. As part of the kick-off, all the members of all of the main sub-projects in all the development sites all over the world went to see the newly released Skywalker film.”
My God. How cool is that?! My sons would have loved her too.
There was her love of music, into which she escaped frequently. And then there was the day when I brought to Gwenyth’s notice that she was particularly feisty.
JAN 14th, 2020, 1:43 PM
“You want feisty? These photos are of the wallpaper in my bedroom. It just looks like flowers but when you get closer, it is a real Kama Sutra wall paper. Even the birds are at it! It was on the wall when we moved in and I thought it too much fun to cover up!”
“FANTASTIC! I love it. Tell me…did it inspire you both? It’s quite lovely.”
“It is a big step from inspiration to happening!”
“HAHAHAHAHAHA! I’m sure that’s just modesty talking…I’m really discovering a different side of you. But honestly, it’s lovely! And subtle, really.”
“Yes, it is lovely. The people who moved out only moved across the hall into a bigger apartment so the children could have a room each. They re-wallpapered their whole apartment and said they would have put up the same wallpaper in their bedroom but it is no longer for sale.”
“Well there you are. Glad you and Jan could enjoy it. You haven’t been there very long!”
“I didn’t see it at first. The lady asked me what I thought of the wallpaper and I said it was lovely but I was not really a fond wallpaper fan. Then she said: Have you looked closely? Then I saw the detail and said: “We will definitely keep it!” I have had great fun showing it to younger members of [my husband’s ] family!”
* * *
It was always clear that the first part of Gwenyth’s life, in New Zealand, bore the imprint of pain. I couldn’t help but sense that she had escaped something; that she had worked very hard in her life to deal with past trauma, which she alluded to in early 2020. Bits of messages like :
“I come from a teetotaller home with very Victorian norms and controls. On top of that my mother was a Seventh Day Adventist so you can imagine how innocent I was! […]”
And, in a message a few days later, on January 6th:
“I have always been the black sheep of our family, the little sister who shamed them all. (I’ll probably tell you about that some other day). […]”
Gwenyth did, in time, tell me the most important parts of her story, much of which I had read between the lines of her messages already. We spoke explicitly about some of her experiences, but it never seemed necessary to dig too deep. She would sometimes say: Enough of this sad talk…and we would move on.
We carry our trauma into every new day. It colours our perceptions and often distorts the decisions we make. Both Gwenyth and I saw this in our own lives and in each other. It has all made me wonder if perhaps colorectal cancer is the cancer created by internalized sadness and pain (Gwenyth and I were both the first known cases of colorectal cancer in our family trees).
On January 20th (2020), I received the following message from Gwenyth:
I looked at your photo taken after your new haircut. Only one who has been there could see the signs of Oxaliplatin*. I shed a few tears at the thought of your tired and irritated eyes and thought about how the inside of your nose must also be sore. There is a Maori term that I wish to share with you because I feel it is so apt for you at this time [..]” (*Note: at that point, I had been off Oxaliplatin for more than a year: what Gwenyth saw were the ravages of Fluorouracil—also known as 5 FU—a drug I will likely be taking as long as I live)
What she introduced me too was the following Wikipedia definition:
“Kia-kaha – Wikipedia
Kia kaha is a Māori phrase used by the people of New Zealand as an affirmation, meaning stay strong. The phrase has significant meaning for Māori: popularised through its usage by the 28th Māori Battalion during World War II, it is found in titles of books and songs, as well as a motto.”
Stay strong. It was a grounding affirmation, and we would both need it.
* * *
Because the treatment of advanced cancer is a relentless assault on the body, I think that it’s critical to find an outlet, a means of self-expression, of escape, a place of respite and a source of joy that places little strain on the body. My deep dive into writing has helped me through.
When Gwenyth received her terminal diagnosis late November 2019, something extraordinary happened to her. For weeks and months afterwards, it seemed as though she had left behind her clenched fearfulness and found herself instead in a state of grace, which carried her through to the end of her life, and opened up the possibility of joy in ways she would never have thought possible just months before.
And that’s when she astonished me with her final “coming out” as an artist. She had presented me with glimpses into that side of her months before, when she began producing works of art that helped her to conceptualize and assimilate her experience of chemotherapy. As I look back at it now, I can see both her emotional revulsion at what her body was being forced to endure, and her scientific-creative fascination with these same, devastating drugs.
January 29th, 2019
“Yesterday I began a simple collage. I will use tiny torn up bits of Japanese rice paper that I have dyed with watercolours. They have jagged edges and various facets. The background is a pale wash of carmine with molecular structures drawn in ink. My hope is that molecules will faintly show through the rice paper. To be continued…”
Under this image that accompanied her description of her project, she wrote: “These mole molecules affect everything in my life at the moment. Much more energy today.”
A year later, on January 8th, Gwenyth had returned to her “molecule watercolours”.
“Here are two earlier versions of the FOLFOX painting. First I drew the molecular structures of the three main components. Then I collaged ripped up rice paper that I had coloured with watercolours. Lastly I painted in a background with watercolours. I thought the background was too dark so I tried to wash it out under the tap. I was a bit heavy handed with the paper which Tore. Do you agree that the final result is quite symbolic of the process on one’s body?”
At this point in her life, Gwenyth found herself bursting with inspiration. “I pity the person who tries to take over my hard disk! I really need to clean it up. I have so many “Ideas for Art” pictures!” She was bubbling over with creative energy.
There was even a day, in early 2020, when she greeted me with the words: “I have been Arting!” (I proceeded to tease her about “the passing of creative gases”).
In 2017, Gwenyth had enrolled in an online art course (connected to a British university, I think). Working from home, she would send virtual, visual progress to her teacher. She had already set up a drawing blog to make things easier. Gwenyth’s final project, The Erratic: An Exercise is Scaling Up and Portraying Weight and Texture, made me gasp when I first opened the final creation. It’s a spectacular work of art. I love it.
To understand it, you can go to Gwenyth’s blog site, where she walks you through her process. In geology, an erratic is a rock or boulder that differs from the surrounding rock and is believed to have been brought from a distance by glacial action.
I had never heard the word used in that context before, and I found the concept brilliant. And there was, hidden inside it, this notion of a woman who travelled half way around the world–brought, too, from a distance, only this time, by the pull of a boreal world. You can also go see the time lapse video of The Making of the Erratic.
* * *
MY own journey these past two years has certainly been erratic, as I have been pulled into a mode of existence with a disease anyone would want to flee. I think Gwenyth felt the same way.
Human time is not the deep time of geology. We wake up every morning unaware of what lies ahead. When things are hard, this gives us hope–that change will come–but I think that most of the time, as we move through our busy, busy, jam-packed occidental lives, we live as though barely there at all.
During the last years of her life especially, Gwenyth was THERE.
I feel so grateful to have had a chance to meet her and come to know and love her. I never saw it coming. Two cancerous women reaching out to each other through fibre optic cables and computer screens.
Dear Gwenyth, this is my eulogy in your memory. Thank you for being my friend.
“The future is too far away for me to approach just now. This illness and these treatments make me feel everything so intensively, both pain and pleasure. You too I think. The place I live in offers me peace and beauty which helps me to stay in the moment. Goodnight my new and treasured friend.” –Gwenyth , January 29th 2019
Goodnight dearest Gwenyth.