I remember the day Nancy told me she had found a lump. We were in the kitchen of her parents’ home in West Vancouver, she was home for a visit, busy making a vegetarian chili and off-handedly mentioned the biopsy. “But it’s probably nothing.” She added, then laughed. So flippantly, so able to hide what was going on behind those laughing blue eyes. Always making excuses for what she saw as her shortcomings. On that day, I believe her (as we always did) that it was indeed nothing. Little did I know that we would only have Nancy in our lives for another 8 years.
Three years ago I sat in a quiet room and watched the strongest woman I have ever met fight to the death. Literally. There were many currents swirling in that book-lined bedroom but, looking back now, I can’t describe it as anything less than war.
On April 16, 2007, Nancy Shaw did not want to die. She was not ready to die. All my life, I’ve clung to the comfort that when people die from a disease like cancer, they come to a place of peace. It’s what we read about in the stories, what we see in the movies and television shows. But Nan did not want to die, despite the few moments in the afternoon three years ago when she begged me to let her die because the pain was so intense.
The day before Nancy died we sat together in her room, surrounded by her books and had our last real visit. (Even though I was with her the next day, at her request, I now know I was there that day as a witness to her last battle not to visit.) Nan had the most analytical mind I’ve ever known. She liked to dissect a problem, find a solution and then go with it. The fact that the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do was a problem to be solved. Nan decided she would give just a little. We would get a wheelchair and a hospital bed on Monday, she said.
“Because it’s not going to happen fast, Cath. It’s going to be a while. Like a few months. Not fast.”
I believed her. Despite the odds, Nancy had lived life to the fullest for the past 8 years. I’d seen her fight back from impossible odds so many times. The day before we had our heart-to-heart she’d been out lunch with her friends. Here was a vibrant, fully-alive woman. She was undeniably sick, yes, but Nan had never let that stop her before.
Nancy was the oldest child her family. She took on the role of protector. When I look back now, I think she was trying to protect us all from what was going to come. The gaping hole that she would leave in all our lives.
I learned so much from Nancy. I learned what a two-day tenure track interview was about. I learned how to edit an academic article. I learned what a successful SSHRC application looks like. I learned how to pick yourself up after being disappointed and find a new way to achieve your goals. I learned what a reading of one’s poetry can look like. And I learned to never, ever, give up. Nancy did all of these things first – she was the big sister and a worthy role model. The hardest thing I’ve done since Nan left was finish my dissertation and defend it, without Nan’s critique and expertise.
The day after Nancy died, I sat in her empty room, on the bed where she had been hours earlier. I closed my eyes and felt her arms around me, I opened them and saw her books. I reached out and Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death seemed to fall into my hand. In the days that followed there was too much chaos to read but one week later, when all the friends and family had left, when life returned to what would become our new version of normal, I had the book from Nancy. Timing was one of her many gifts.
So many things have happened in the last three years. I’ve heard Nancy’s voice in my head so many times (and, yes, she still swears just as much as she used to). I recognize the gift she gave me, the lessons I learned. I am thankful for the time we shared together.
But I still miss her achingly, especially on sunny spring mornings in April.