I follow a woman on Instagram who is dying of cancer. She rarely mentions it. She rarely pictures it. But I notice it. Glaringly so. Actually, she stopped posting pictures all together a few weeks ago. And that’s when I knew it was the beginning of her end.
Beautifully curated and designed images. Fields of wildflowers. Backyard hens. Sparkling rays of sun on golden braided hair. Little floured hands in cookie dough. A swollen belly filled with a baby. Crowns of pink roses. Handmade bonnets, dresses and leather shoes. Candid sleeping. Candid selfies. Kissing spouses. Beautiful children. Happiness.
In January, Mary* posted a picture of a GoFundMe page that her sister started for her after a year of secretly being diagnosed and struggling with ovarian cancer. All of her followers were stunned. But I really wasn’t. I have a knack for sniffing these things out. Something of a curse, really. Subtle changes catch my intuition. A few less selfies. Boney hands. Thinning braids. Yellowing skin. I’ve seen it all before in people I have loved and lost to cancer. Except their lives were far less documented and beautiful. She didn’t tell us that she is on hospice, just that she has cancer. Because how do you beautifully capture catheter bags and morphine drips? Home hospital beds and bed pans? Where are the sun rays and roses to make me want what she has? Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Envy.
We often forget that it is the earth to where we all return. Perhaps that’s why writing and creating art has driven human existence for millennia. We want to be remembered. We want to be preserved. We want to be kept. Everything that we believe is valuable and important should last on this earth after we are gone. Perhaps that’s why Instagram is such a place of beauty for me. It’s people staking their permanence in the world before they are returned to dust. Even if it is often fake. Whatever that means. What art isn’t fake? Isn’t all art a reflection of our reality? Glimmers of our existence? No matter how authentic or real we attempt to make it look or appear? Because, I’ll tell you that even if Mary did post her experience of dying, it would never be enough. It would never be her dying self. Her failing body. Her motherless children. Her widower husband. Dying is a lonely business and art can rarely capture it. It can attempt. It can come close. But no one who has ever died has written of it on paper or captured it in an image. That last escaped breath is all the world knows of it. Life is gone and death has entered.
And then what?
I’m currently reading a book of poetry by Karenne Wood called Markings on Earth. It has taken my breath away and it reminds me so much of myself. Her poem “Blue Mountains” reminds me of a poem that I recently wrote called “Stories From Ott Street.” They both are set in the same mountain range of Virginia and they both talk about death and a lingering once we’re gone. She says,
Bury us in the blue mountains, our bodies
the earth they have always been.
We will grow
into trees and animals, turn soil back to elk’s grass
and ask to return as an elemental brightness
that gleams with the most furious love.
Death has always surrounded us as an art. The trees and the grass and the air are created from generations of bone and blood. It has preserved us, grows us, and feeds us with a furious love. Both friends and enemies alike. It is a cycle. A preservation. An art.
*I have a sensitivity to talking about people on the internet. Specifically people who I don’t know and who don’t know me. I’ve changed the name of the woman I follow on Instagram for privacy’s sake. The last thing she needs is some rando blogger talking about her and her family’s grief and loss. We all should be given the dignity to tell our own stories when and how we think they should be told. And so, I leave them with theirs to tell.