I’ve lost several friends to cancer. It feels weird to write the word “lost”, like I’ve misplaced them. They are no longer with me, but yet they are, in my consciousness. Maybe the correct description is that several of my friends are no longer animate because of cancer. There are times, though, that I feel them so closely that I want to invent another verb tense or a different language to describe how I feel the echo of them. The story of one such animate-to-inanimate transition can only be told in present tense, because it stays with me to this day.
My friend Jen Bulik is dying and it is so unfair. She is young and healthy, someone who follows her bliss. She goes to the doctor because she has a rough cough that lingers for too long, and is diagnosed with lung cancer. It is very unexpected. Jen is not a cigarette smoker and she is only 34 years old. I meet her at her apartment to practice yoga because she is worried that her cough might disrupt the other students in a group class. Our session is cut short by her cough that is so forceful it gives her a headache. As I leave we discuss when I can see her again, but we never get that chance. When I remember these days with Jen it’s as if I’m watching a movie in fast motion.
The next time I see her she is in the hospital and her doctors inform her that her cancer had spread to her cerebral spinal fluid, the reason for her headaches. She tells me in the hospital that she and her fiancé have decided to get married. When she’s out of the room, her mother tells me the doctor has advised them to schedule whatever trips and plans to happen in the short term. There is no long term for her anymore. Her mother and I hold each other in disbelief. They have to be wrong. This isn’t Jen’s path. She’ll be the one who defies all the odds.
Fast-forward to the wedding reception and her mother and I speak again. I tell her that I firmly believe that Jen isn’t done with this world yet. We enjoy the very special day, a day brought into sharper focus by Jen’s beautifully bald head and many changes of outrageous wigs, and so many other little wonderful details. I can’t recall if I see her after her wedding. I do text her often, and in one conversation we discuss what it means to “beat cancer”; I write that I think it’s possible to live with the cancer, and she agrees. This is my last two-sided conversation with Jen.
Her husband notifies us all on social media that the family would like us all to respect their privacy during the difficult days. So I don’t visit. I stay in touch with her mother. She tells me Jen’s getting worse, and her days are focused on palliative care – learning to ride the pain, rather than battling the cancer. I grow something sour in my stomach one day, feel like I’m being stalked, and I struggle to breathe as I realize her end is quite near. I try to contact her mother, her husband, but no one responds back. I go to my early morning yoga class, feeling unsettled and incomplete. Before I enter the room, I send a desperate text to Jen’s phone; I know she won’t see it, but I think that maybe one of her family members will respond.
I step onto the mat and imagine Jen standing in front of me. She has taken many of my classes in the past and I know that she likes to move, so I imagine as I breathe in and raise my arms that I am raising her arms, that ‘we’ are folding forward together as I breathe out… I continue through my sequence this way, pausing when the flood of tears come. At one point, I decide to practice a full backbend and the tears slide into my hairline. It tickles me and I collapse into a fit of giggles. My teacher, who has been quietly watching me and offering nonverbal support through touch and eye contact, walks over to me and asks if I’m okay. I decide it’s time to finish up and I take an extra long time in savasana, the corpse pose. When I roll out of this pose, I no longer feel like I’m moving Jen’s body around with mine. The disconnection leaves me cold. I bundle up and leave the room. Later that day I find out that Jen left her body a short while after I finished my practice.
I still feel her each time I stand and reach my hands up and fold my body forward. I still see her face each time I begin class. I dedicate a few breaths or sometimes whole classes to her. And it may be my own imagination, but when I do, the practice feels more connected, more meaningful. Is this what prayer feels like to the devout? Not just words or actions but a feeling of being near to some invisible presence that is not different from me? Today, a student gave me a book title I Am That and I flipped open to this quote:
“Just like gold made into ornaments has no advantage over gold dust, except when the mind makes it so, so are we one in being – we differ only in appearance.”
Thank you for sharing your dust with me, Jen. May we all feel that meaning and connection.