Today a very personal post from my partner Sarah about her best friend Rachel, who died three years ago.
When Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago now, she fairly soon wanted to find her sisters. Other women who’d shared some of her experiences and ‘been in some of the same rooms’ as we always described those places and days of rapid diagnosis, treatment decisions and prognosis. Other women she could really talk to.
Well finding these sisters took a while, a great while. But eventually, through social media, into her life they came. Americans for the most part, and an Australian living in the States in one very particular, opinionated and lovable case. Rachel from New Jersey.
Their friendship was brief, as you’ll hear, but deep and intensely joyous. Their regular Skypes changed the sound of our house. And Rachel’s love brought the sparkle back into Sarah’s eyes. A spark and a sparkle the eventually ebbing grief of these past three years has never subsequently extinguished.
And of course Rachel and these years since changed my life too. Made me value the living of it more than ever before. But you’ll know about that already if you’ve read my ‘Year to live’ posts.
So here is Sarah, remembering Rachel.
Today I am remembering my dear friend Rachel Cheetham. She died three years ago on the 6th of February. At her husband Anthony’s request I facilitated a two hour memorial service for her in New Jersey in 2012, a week after her death, with the help of our mutual friend Gayle Sulik.
I wrote the following introduction to Rachel as an exercise for my funeral celebrant training later in 2012. I’d discussed my plans with Rach to do this training, in what turned out to be our last conversation. This is how I introduced Rachel:
“The last eight years of Rachel’s life were dominated by her diagnosis of breast cancer in 2004. Despite multiple surgery and treatments, the cancer recurred twice, and proved fatal.
It’s hard for us to see any sense in seeing such a vital, forceful, dynamic person have their life cut short at age 41. Rachel had so much in her life – an international career, a loving husband, a beautiful home and garden, a devoted and much-loved dog.
Cancer may have stolen Rachel’s career, but in the last few years she used her intelligence to write her blog, and as she joked herself, ‘Who knew I’d become a world famous blogger?’ But she did.
Rachel’s death left many of us with an enormous sense of loss. She meant so much to so many people. So whilst it is hard to accept now, hopefully in time we will be able to think of her, with her acerbic wit and unfailing kindness, and say, “I’m glad I knew Rachel. My life is richer for knowing her.”
Three years on I’m now a qualified and experienced funeral celebrant. Over the last two and a half years I’ve worked with lots of families to create meaningful funerals, to say goodbye. It is an extremely enriching career and I feel enormously privileged to be doing the work. This work plugs me into the main vein of life and death, and I love it. I also feel incredibly lucky that I have an ‘afterwards’ that is so meaningful and rich, my work is hugely rewarding.
I still think about Rachel, though, a lot. As each year turns towards the gradually lightening evenings, I am reminded of 2012. Like the way the sky is, inky blue black, but somehow lighter. This time of year, the growing light, a few minutes lighter each evening, the streak of light in the west across the rooves of the houses on Queens Drive here in Liverpool, and shining just above us, Venus like a diamond.
The separation was very painful. In the weeks after Rachel died I wrote:
“And here’s the thing. This thing called grief. It is so big, so solid – it has a feel, a shape. Mine is a big hard cube, like ice – I feel it sometimes in my throat, I feel it other times pressing on my chest, and it makes my eyes water. And here’s the other thing about it – everything and anything else put next to it seems tiny and frankly insignificant.”
I have learned that this is the perspective that death gives us. Facing death, things move into their correct proportion.
Gradually, and at times painfully, the sadness of Rachel’s loss did start to leave me. I could smile again at memories. Instead of causing tears of pain and sadness, they began to cause happiness.
I only knew Rachel for 14 months. It seems almost impossible that we could have created such a strong connection in such a short time, even across 3,500 miles. But we did. At Rachel’s memorial service I saw photographs of her when younger – a dazzling woman with an amazing smile in a cocktail dress in NYC, a bikini clad carefree spirit on some exotic palm fringed beach on holiday, beaming with happiness with her beloved husband. She was absolutely dazzling and full of life. And although I didn’t know the Rach in those photographs, I did know an amazing and dazzling woman. She had a spark, a mischievious streak. I recall sitting with Rachel in hospital in New Jersey, as (once again) she took her place in the chemo chair, and I passed her a sweet when the saline drip was put in. A knowing weary exchange from me to her – patient to patient. No words were necessary. For amusement we ransacked the patient literature and laughed like schoolgirls as we snorted over the pithy language that only has a place for survivors. And then we went for lunch.
Rachel could never ‘transcend’ breast cancer to become the beaming ‘survivor’ that shows we can ‘beat’ breast cancer, she was Stage IV when I first met her, already terminal.
A friend who never knew Rachel asked me what she was like. This is how I described her – opinionated, articulate, intelligent, funny, irreverent, she loved nature, cooking, knitting, shopping, gardening…. and I realised I could be describing myself, and said, ‘Rach was the person most like me in the whole world.’ I delighted in the sheer pleasure of her company and her conversation. She was my intellectual equal. I always felt ‘filled up’ and enriched after a conversation with Rach, like a good meal.
And although breast cancer was our link, our key, the way we found each other – we had so much in common. Rachel loved to cook, never happier than in her own kitchen as designed by her with the lovely glass tiles round the big gas stovetop – at least five rings. When she cooked, I was quite happy to either watch her, or pass things, or be the washer up. Rachel’s exquisite taste was everywhere in her home.
Rachel, although eight years younger than me, always felt like my older sister, someone I could look up to and aspire to be. She admired my red lippie*. It was a mutual admiration. (*Note: ‘lippie’ is an abbreviation for lipstick, used by UK English speakers like me, and Rachel herself especially had a knack of using the ‘ie’ ending, like doggie.)
In the weeks and months after Rachel died I did things to capture her memory and spirit – it helped. Throughout the time I’d known Rachel I’d made her films – films made just for her, which showed her my world, my garden here in Liverpool, which she longed to visit, and films of walks with Ronnie. After she died I compiled a ‘best of’ film called ‘One More Spring’ (There’s a link at the end of this post). Because in my first Skype conversations with Rachel early in 2011 we’d delighted about the first daffodils, the arrival of spring. I had anticipated at least one more.
But that didn’t happen, so 2012 became a year of grief for me.
And this is how I remembered Rachel. During the summer in 2012 I went to night school, and learned how to print and bind my own edition of a book called “10,237 – a book of hours”, the number of hours I’d known Rachel.
I found and planted a Wollemi pine, an Australian rarity, in her memory in my garden.
I walked the Cistercian Way in Southern Cumbria. I remembered Rachel.
I also collaborated with Rachel’s mother Mandy (who lives in Australia) to produce a hardback printed version of Rachel’s blog – The Cancer Culture Chronicles, doing all the illustrations myself, a treasured keepsake for Rachel’s dearest friends. For me it was important to remember Rachel. She’d written so eloquently about the reality of being a breast cancer patient, one for whom there was no ‘after’.
Rachel’s gift to me
Recently I read ‘Late Fragments’ by Kate Gross, written as a terminal cancer patient, in her 30s. She writes that ‘little is written about sickness and death, given their universality as part of the human experience.’ Yes, that’s true.
A few weeks after Rachel’s death I’d found myself at the ‘five years’ point since my own breast cancer diagnosis. Feeling like I should have something profound to say. But I didn’t. And in the cirumstances, that is compared to Rachel dying, it seemed barely relevant or important. It just is. I know breast cancer is fickle, I’ve read the line too many times: ‘breast cancer can recur at any time’. I met a woman, who had also been treated for breast cancer, she congratulated me on reaching the ‘five year’ mark. I didn’t think it worthy of being a milestone, and when I told her my dear friend had just died of breast cancer, her response was, ’Well, we don’t need to dwell on that, do we?’
Well, actually, I think we do need to be thinking about the women who die of breast cancer. Because the fact is, that even though a woman diagnosed with invasive breast cancer gets more treatment now, she still:
‘Has about the same chances of dying from the disease as she did 50 years ago.’ (Gayle Sulik, Pink Ribbon Blues p159)
That’s not progress. Me, eight years after diagnosis. Treated, yes, and alive. But I’m just lucky. Others aren’t so lucky. It feels so random, despite the treatments we are offered, choose and endure.
My friend, Rachel, was stolen from me. And from our mutual friend Gayle who wrote those words. We called ourselves the three musketeers – that was Rachel’s name for us. I wish we’d had the chance to create more memories. But we didn’t. So I gather up the memories I do have, and bind them together, a golden thread which contains me and this amazing woman – we are eating chocolate together, we are lazing about on her boat, having ice cream at Asbury Park, we are sitting in the rose garden at the NY Botanic Garden, having sushi with Gayle in New Jersey, we are laughing and talking and all seems right with the world.
Gayle’s mother took that picture. She drove from Pennsylvania to New Jersey in 2011 to meet those two ‘phenomenal women’ her daughter couldn’t stop talking about. For lunch, we had juicy tomato slices with basil and fresh mozzarella, and watched Newmsie, Rachel’s dog, dig holes beneath the lemon trees. Our gathering was a moment suspended in time, and across thousands of miles. But Dorothys don’t always get to go back to Kansas just because we wish it were so. It’s hard not to keep wishing, even three years after Rachel’s death.
Gayle writes about Rachel still, in her scholarly work, on the Breast Cancer Consortium, anywhere she can talk about the power of friendship — and advocacy, and breast cancer. It doesn’t suffice. It never will. We knew we had something special in Rachel, and in each other. We were changed. But we carry on, sometimes with smiles on our faces, sometimes through tears. And we will keep remembering.
I have come to realise, that once we accept that life is temporary, it gives everything we do an unparalleled sense of urgency. And I feel that very keenly. I still find myself wanting to tell Rach something, especially when spring arrives. I see the first blossom, just after the snowdrops and I think to myself, ‘Spring is here, again, and I wanted to tell you.’ Part of grief is the loss of the things that won’t now happen. But we carry loss, we have to, we become different, and I still feel lucky even though I have lost.
And I am still surprised at how long shards of grief remain. Me and Ronnie were listening to a Paul Buchanan LP a few weeks ago. When the song ‘I remember you’ played, I burst into tears at the line: “I know exactly what you’d say, It’s still the only thing that’s true.”
Today – a few days before the anniversary of Rachel’s death – I drive up the drive to the crematorium where I so often work now. All along the drive there are snowdrops, heralding the arrival – again – of spring. Of one more spring.
Rachel. I am so glad I knew you. I would rather have one year of friendship like this, than a lifetime of casual acquaintances. I have enough memories now to sustain me.
As I wrote in my introduction to Rachel, about how I hoped that in time we could think of her in this way, I’m glad I knew Rachel. My life is richer for knowing her.
Yes, my life is, without a doubt, richer for knowing her. I will never forget you Rachel.
Special thanks to Gayle for helping me write this.