Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: personal reflection

Elizabeth, Justin and I

Elizabeth was ten years old when I was born; nevertheless, I regarded her as my contemporary. We had a satisfying relationship. She got on with her duties and was seldom ill. She had been there all my life. She helped me through the war. She was a soldier, herself. When she and I were young,…

BACK TO THE FUTURE: the stalled novel set in 2120

According to the news hound in my family, Peel County where I live in Mississauga, west of Toronto, Canada, had the longest lock down on the planet. I don’t know. I do know it was very long. It began when our premier told those over 70 not to leave home. Eventually I discovered that chewing…


There is an ancient Chinese story about an old farmer with one son. They are very poor, so poor that the son has to pull the plow to cultivate their field. Seeing this, a wealthier person gives them a horse. The village is jubilant, “What a good piece of luck,” they say. “We”ll see,” says…

Went to a post-op appointment with my surgeon, said, “I’m so grateful that you and the Trillium Hospital System were able to do the mastectomy so quickly despite Covid and give me a chance at a longer life.”

He said, “Not if you don’t get this heart workup.”


On the day, Oct 1 when I woke up from the anesthetic, I seemed surrounded by people, including my daughter and they were all concerned about how I felt. It would take me a while to figure that out, I thought. Not too bad, not like waking up from abdominal surgery, feeling as if someone had hit your belly with a 2 by 4.

“They’re going to keep you in overnight,” my daughter said.

“I’m okay. Why can’t I go home?”

“You developed a very rapid heart beat and arterial fibrillation. You still have it.”

“No, I don’t. I feel fine. I’ve had missed beat a few times. I always feel it. I haven’t had it for years.”

“You have it right now,” she said.

Something was beeping at my left shoulder.

“They’re just waiting for a room where your heart can be monitored.”

All these busy professional people, I thought. They’ve got this so wrong. My daughter had been in health care until her health mandated her retirement.

I had been given something to steady things out, but now they were debating about not giving another dose because it had done what it was supposed to, but now it was doing the opposite. They concluded no more. I lost the plot on whether a doctor signed off on that, but it was good because it was time for more morphine. I sort of remembered what they said because later, I seemed to be the voice of record. I kept reciting it when a new nurse came on shift. Then I totally forgot it.

My daughter was allowed in my new hospital room for 5 minutes. Covid, you know. All my paraphernalia was piled in a corner. I was hooked up to lubricated pads and wires and a machine that rang bells. My daughter, from California, had just arrived the day before but I couldn’t chat with her. No,sir. She was for the chop, out the door. We were having the pandemic of the unvaccinated. She and I were vaccinated and tested and generally certified. All of us were wearing masks – provided by the hospital. Just in case we had actually been wearing our own for a week straight.

She went away.

But it was time for more morphine. Who can complain? It was hard enough to form words.

Oh, the other problem was blood pressure. Typically I have a slow heart beat even after exercise. Typically, I have low blood pressure. The initial drug had slowed down the heart but plummeted the blood pressure -? I listened carefully to what the nurse said. When he finished, I said, “I have a question”. “Yes,” he said, standing ready to explain. I replied,”What is your name again?”

I think he said Walter, but I do remember doing a review later in the middle of the night. I just don’t remember his name.

I couldn’t sneak a glimpse of the incision. Way too much bandage and an evil plastic ‘grenade’ that was squashed for negative pressure and pinned to my gown. Nobody said ‘negative pressure’ nobody said ‘has to be squashed to suck’. Nobody said ‘leaks”. But I knew these evil devices. They liked nothing more than to start spitting. The nurse did something with it out of sight, recorded something and emptied it. I had to shuffle along after him into the washroom, hospital gowned, on a tether of plastic tube with a trailing tall apparatus, and watch what looked like my good red blood drain away. My favourite part was staggering back to bed.

Every time I lapsed into sleep, the machine screamed. All night. Finally, I analyzed it with all my remaining intelligence.

“It does the alarm thing when I hold my breath,” I announced.

I’m not sure it was then, but eventually, someone put oxygen into my nose.

Why was I holding my breath? You should have lived my life!

There were other memorable and either traumatic or funny incidents. The evil drain leaked. My bandaging was blood-soaked, drying into what felt like armour. We raced to the Home Care Office. (Yes, truly.) It was 5 p.m., closing time. That was bad enough, but I had no file. I had just been released – file – not available yet. The first nurse backed away from me, her arm straight out defensively, shouting, “I can’t touch you. I can’t touch you.” She was doing a tai chi move called ‘Stepping back to ward off monkey’.

A second nurse took us into a treatment room. I lay down musing upon my untouchable status. Through the thin wall, we could hear the two nurses screaming at each other. One finally prevailed. She would work overtime, one hour, and do the job. She was not the one warding off the monkey. I will draw a curtain there, without mentioning the quickly hidden text book or ‘negative pressure’. I came out with half my chest encased in a clean wide covering, like a 20’s breast concealer.

We learned much by consulting Dr. Google after that.

But, back to today, I sat in one of the few remaining coffee shops in our city after my appointment, ate sugar and drank chai – not very good chai- hint -not the green siren’s.

I came home. I phoned my sister first because I was whiny, worked some of that out. Then I phoned my daughter on a mountain in So Cal. She helped me see things more rationally. I ate lunch, I took 1/2 dose of lorazepam, I set the timer for 25 minutes. When I woke up, I drank a glass of water and sat down on the couch.

I have always had a good relationship with the dead. They drop in to see me soon after their demise. My father phoned me in the middle of the night, but avoided my questions. I don’t doubt that they still exist. Some of them I am quite fond of. It’s just that at the moment, I am invested in earth and the people on it, including two little Texas girls, who carry my genes.

The doctor had inspected my incision and pronounced it excellent or very good or maybe even perfect. When I caught a glimpse of it changing my clothes, I acknowledged he was right, but I had been very attached to that right breast. It had been the best breast, the other one had already had its problems.

I got to thinking about all the parts of me that had already gone up in my smoke and been reduced to ashes. Surprising how many parts a woman can lose and still appear more or less normal and still have a body that functions. I hadn’t caught Covid, for example.


So, I had my own grief before dying session. It involved that those old words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This caused a stir among the spirits that had come drifting down to comfort me. You can hardly move in my apartment sometimes.

Patently, I hadn’t been deserted. I found the cancer. I had half a dozen doctors and technicians who proved it was cancer in two weeks. I got a surgeon. My son, and my doctor grandson (on the phone from Dallas) were part of the surgeon interview. My daughter came to care for me. Home Care got progressively better and Dr. Google can answer anything. And such gifts and cards and laughter at least til the morphine stopped.

Sure fine!

It’s going to be a long process letting go of earth, so I’d better see that I get more time or failing that, speed up.

If you are in that process, good luck. You are not alone.

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