20 days into 2016 and it feels like we could call it the Year of the Dead – or the Year of Cancer. Alan Rickman’s passing reminds all Harry Potter fans that not only is professor Snape arguably the most complex, conflicted, and beautiful character in the series, not only is he indeed dead, but his very soul, the person who brought him to life, is now extinguished also. Dead forever. Immortalized on film, yes, so that we can relive his beautiful, tortured existence, but without Rickman, there is no more Snape. Love is said to be the most powerful force in the series. No character loved more than Snape, who ultimately gave his very life to save a person who hated him. Voldemort may have killed Snape, but cancer killed Snape’s soul.
David Bowie, cultural icon, inspiring so many to conform only to the beat of their own drum, influencer, entertainer, a beloved household name. Died of natural causes cancer.
So many mourn the passing of these 2 celebrities, taken before their time by a disease that has no regard for human dignity.
Cancer makes me angry.
In large part, because it’s more personal than celebrities dying of cancer for my eldest daughter. For her, cancer is the quiet beast that took her beloved mentor and ballet instructor away from her 9 months ago; the guy she moved across the country for. He was so strong, and yet so gentle; so demanding, and so kind. You wouldn’t dare mess around with him in class, but you felt like you could tell him anything one on one and he would know exactly what to say. Mr Magnus was that kind of strong. Through and through. And at some point, this venomous creature snuck into his bones and slowly destroyed him from the inside out. Once they figured out why he was feeling so tired, it was too late. 3 weeks later he died.
In a way, he was lucky. His battle against cancer didn’t last long. But it wasn’t “lucky” for those who loved him. There was virtually no notice given. One moment he’s fine, and the next he’s gone forever.
Our ballerina spent the better part of last year mourning the death of her greatest mentor. She eventually found her footing again, found a training program that would understand her grief, and she starting growing again as a dancer. It was beautiful to see her freedom as she expressed herself through movement. She started connecting with various dancers and teachers, and felt both comforted and stabbed by the similarities she noticed between a particular teacher, a pianist, and her beloved Mr Magnus. They reminded her of him.
A couple weeks ago, the kind, strong, gentle pianist, whose great love of music and expression reminded her of her favorite teacher, now gone, disappeared from the ballet studio.
He was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and died this past weekend.
My strong, gentle, passionate, super talented, kind, daughter, whose great love of music and expression was mirrored by this unassuming accompanist, is devastated.
She started crying, because she had grown to love this dear man. She sobbed when she realized that he had died on the same day of the month as Mr Magnus. And she completely lost it when she started listing off all of the people that she knows, or knew, that have battled cancer.
She is seventeen, and she knows way more about the grief of losing loved ones, or almost losing loved ones, than I do at over twice her age. And most of them have been because of cancer.
We were 3 hours away for auditions over the weekend, just she and I, and I had waited to tell her the news until after that day’s audition. That night, after I listened to her quietly sobbing for a while in the next room, she asked to cuddle with me for the first time in I don’t know how long.
I hate cancer.
The next morning, she pulled herself together and went to her final audition of the weekend, where she danced with strength, determination, and expression. I admire her so much for allowing herself to mourn, and also finding the courage to follow through with her goals.
Several years ago, a dear friend of hers was diagnosed with cancer and started treatments for it. We didn’t see him for months at a time. He has been fighting cancer on and off now for years. Between how far away we lived from each other, how he had to drop out of the school that our kids also went to, his aggressive treatment schedule, and then not being allowed near anyone who might be sick on account of his compromised immune system, our contact with him slacked off until it became a once a year kind of event in the form of a phone call. He was her best friend at the time, and cancer stole him away from her. I don’t think she has recovered from it: she has yet to develop another friendship of that depth with anyone since.
People die all the time. It is the natural, biological end of all living things. Everybody dies. We should talk about it more as a society. It should be included in our topics of conversation with our children. If not as a topic in and of itself, it should at least not be avoided.
Otherwise, our perception of death will be defined by the local news (beware the angry boyfriend or random troubled lonely white guy), or global news (it’s a war out there; people die), or movies (people dying is no big deal as long as our hero stays alive), or video games (killing bad guys is fun), and we will be completely ill-equipped with death in real life, our way of handling it being to stuff our feelings and not think about it, because one of the biggest offenses we can make is to cause someone to lose their happy place. Positivity is a virtue in the US.
There is no happy in death. Even if death comes at long last to someone who has known much suffering and has been ready for the grim reaper for a long time, death marks the end of their pain, yes, but it is not a joyous moment for those who are left living.
Even for those who believe in a heavenly life after death can only be happy for the person who transitioned to a new life to such a degree, because it does not erase their personal loss.
And yet, death isn’t a bad thing. It is biological. It is in our very nature. We seek ways to extend life, to mask the passing of time, and we purposely live as if death was just a myth – because we don’t truly wrestle with the concept, and the implications. We’ll do that later.
This past summer, my family piled into a car and drove to Northern California to attend the memorial service in honor of my paternal grandmother. I was more worried about the living and how we, in our great diversity of opinions especially regarding matters of faith, would get along, than I was about the actual service of remembrance. It wasn’t until we gathered in a local church’s sanctuary that I realized that I wasn’t ready for what was about to happen. Grandma is dead. What now? The elements of the service itself were all selected and designed to honor who she was. Her favorite hymns, Bible passages, her love of music, and above all, her love of family. Her little brother started sharing stories. Funny stories. Moving stories about Grandma’s compassion for the less fortunate. About the many ways she provided for her family. About her love of books. And much more.
Then others did the same. My Dad shared a few details about his childhood. My Mom spoke of Grandma’s acceptance of her into the family as her own daughter, and how that bond withstood my parents’ divorce, even though Grandma was fervently opposed to divorce.
Where is the beauty in death? It was there, in that room, in the sharing of memories, in the honoring of a person who loved others deeply, in the respect shown to her by those still living, even as they shared stories that implied that, in spite of her virtues, she was no saint, but that in spite of that, she kept trying.
I cried. Not because Grandma died. But because of the love I could feel in that room. It was beautiful. Sometimes Beauty makes me cry.
Death can be a positive jolt to the system. In remembering the influence that a person has had in the world, it can cause us to ask of ourselves: what will I be remembered for? What do I want to be remembered for? And how can I start living to that end now?
My grandmother lived a full life. She died when she was old, with her wits about her to the end. She was lucky.
I hate cancer. And I hate Alzheimers, and dementia. And all matter of disease that robs a person of who they are, that eats at them even as they still live, that batters them down and lessens who they are. These diseases respect no one. It isn’t enough that they kill us – they must rob us of dignity in doing so. Given enough time, they even threaten to replace the very memories of us that our loved ones have.
But we are beautiful creatures, capable of great love, of great accomplishments. We are born into greatness, because we are born human. Whether disease or old age claims our life someday, we are, and will be, full of dignity.
This is not the Year of Death. This is a year still full of possibilities.
So, head up high, with determination and hope in our steps, allowing ourselves to grieve the people and dreams we have lost, how will we live today? What will you accomplish this day? How will you be remembered?
Jeremy Martin-Weber is the proud father of 6 inspiring girls, and is 19 years into a love story with his partner, Jessica Martin-Weber.