Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Saying goodbye to a colleague and friend

A colleague and friend passed away early this morning after a seven-year battle with breast cancer. Her death was peaceful. We visited her yesterday afternoon, having had some idea of what might happen this week. We got a chance to say goodbye since she recognized us even though she could not talk. Her life the past five years has been a roller coaster ride that is almost impossible to describe. We who witnessed her fight know how much she went through, how many rounds of chemo she endured, the different drugs that wore her down, made her lose her hair, affected the nerve endings in her hands and feet, changed the taste of food, and so many other things. Cancer is a horrible illness and she was the first to admit that. She bemoaned how it altered her physically. Mentally was another story. It seemed to motivate her in a way that I found surprising. She was a fighter to the end. She focused on living and not on dying; she kept on working as much as she was able to, almost right up until the end. It kept her going and she was honest about that; she did not have much immediate family around so the social environment at work was also uplifting. She and I often commented on the irony of her situation—she had metastatic cancer that showed tendencies toward becoming resistant to the different drugs she was taking, and she was working on projects at work that had to do with how cancer becomes resistant to chemotherapy. She was very interested in all the new studies and data showing that this or that drug might help improve prognosis. She was an active participant in her treatment programs and was not afraid to discuss her illness or to challenge her doctors with new knowledge that she had found on the internet. She was stubborn and it was that trait that kept her going and instructed those around her about how she wanted to be treated. Except for one or two occasions when she told me that her cancer had again spread and we shared a good cry together, she did not want pity nor did she want anyone to feel sorry for her.  

I knew her for many years, since I moved to Norway. She was an American who married a Norwegian and moved to Norway in the 1970s. Both of her children were fluent in Norwegian and English from a very early age. She saw to that. She did not travel each year back to the USA as I have done since I moved to Norway. It did not seem as important to her as it is to me to do that. But she had weekly contact with her father (a widower) via email, and as he got older, daily contact. When he developed lung cancer, she went to stay with him as his nurse and companion for a few months until his death. She told me that her mother had also had cancer and had died shortly after she moved to Norway. She was proud of the fact that her mother had briefly been a movie star in Hollywood; she had starred in a movie together with Ronald Reagan, but her career was a brief one and when she married she left acting.

She loved to read and her interests were in historical biographies and modern fiction. She and I enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series together and going to the Harry Potter movies with work colleagues. She wasn’t as avid a moviegoer as I am but she would occasionally join me for trips to the movies. Her family and my family managed a trip to the local concert stadium to see Riverdance in 1999. She loved Riverdance. We also shared a Thanksgiving together at another American friend’s house and that was an enjoyable time. When my stepdaughter was young, she and I and my friend and her daughter went strawberry picking together. That was a lot of fun; both girls ate more strawberries than they picked. It is one of my most vibrant memories of being together with her. Her husband’s job took them to Africa when her children were small, and that was an experience she never forgot. She loved being in Africa and we always used to wonder why she didn’t join her husband there in later years when he began to work there more often and was away for months at a time. But she didn’t. She would visit him there during vacation and talk about moving there if she decided to quit working. But she never did.

My memories of her are of a person who was kind, hard-working, patient, selfless, nurturing and supportive. She rarely complained. She made you see the other side of impossible situations even though you didn’t want to. She did not have many goals or ambitions for herself, and I for one wish she had. She expressed a desire once to pursue a Master’s degree but it never became more than that even though there were several opportunities that came her way. She was smart and interested in science and could have managed it without problems. She worked on my research projects for the past nine years, and was a great support to me. Her work was consistent, reproducible and high-quality. She also supported her children in all ways, listened to them, gave advice, helped them financially, and was always available for them. I was glad to see that they were there for her when she needed them, especially the past few months. Her daughter is pregnant and will give birth next June; it is very sad that she did not live to see the birth of her first grandchild. She would have enjoyed being a grandmother. We watched how she was with the son of another friend and work colleague. She really enjoyed him and being around him.

I realized yesterday after having visited her for the last time in the hospital, that it was good that we had said all we needed to say to each other before yesterday. As colleagues, I had already thanked her for her help and support at work so many times, and she had thanked me for giving her the chance to do some of her own research on projects that she was interested in. As friends, we spent countless hours over lunch talking about life and relationships and women’s rights and injustice in the world. I was probably pretty confrontational at times when it came to women’s rights. She was less so when I first met her but became more so during the past few years. I think she understood that it was important that her daughter have the same opportunities as a man would have in the work world. I am nine years younger than she was and I think she thought sometimes that I still had a lot to learn. She was probably right. There were things we did not talk about, and during the past few years there were more things that remained unspoken. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was her illness that crystallized the meaning of life to her, or perhaps we both realized that we could complain about the state of the world but we still had to live in it. In any case, we knew how to agree to disagree when we did not share the same views about the world or specific situations. I am glad that her passage out of this life was peaceful. She deserved that after her long battle. I will miss her. We will miss her.

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