Being a witness to one wild and precious life: in memory of Beth Caldwell

Being a witness to one wild and precious life: in memory of Beth Caldwell

My go to in times of grief is poetry. “Tell me,” Mary Oliver wrote, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”

We get just this one life, this one here and now, this one body and this one mind. Sometimes what we planned to do with our lives is sabotaged, corrupted, thrown out the window.

I’m going to go out on a limb and simply say that Beth Caldwell’s plan did not include becoming an advocate for metastatic breast cancer. But she advocated better than the best. Her anger and passion were laser focused. Her formidable, legal mind and her life-loving soul brought into the world of cancer a flame that has become a bonfire.

I knew Beth only through her words. Her blogs and tweets changed the shape of my experience and of my views about healthcare.

This post is, to my mind, the best piece ever written about cancer. It’s called “Life at the base of a cliff.”

She uses the metaphor of falling off a cliff to describe her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. It’s funny, ever so profane, honest, real, and it hits you in the heart. She wrote it almost three years ago. She died at the base of that cliff on All Saint’s Day.

It would be fair to wonder why I am just now writing this piece. I wrote the section above the day she died, and I couldn’t go any further. Lots of people have written about her, people who knew her much better than I did and who are better writers than I am. I figured my words weren’t needed.

As the holidays rolled around, however, I couldn’t get Beth’s family out of my mind, her husband and two kids. I couldn’t get Beth out of my mind. I read her husband’s tweets and re-read some of her blog posts.

I suppose I just want to be a witness to her life. I want to be one more person who says to the world, “Beth mattered. Beth changed me for the better.” Even if I never met her and knew her only through her words.

She mattered to me because she lived her life passionately. In the midst of her diagnosis and the loss of her career as a civil rights attorney, she redirected her intellect and energy toward co-founding and building Met Up, the name inspired by the AIDS activist organization ActUp. 

Her goal, and the goal of Met Up, is to advocate for research on a cure for metastatic breast cancer. Only a small fraction of money raised for breast cancer research goes to metastatic disease. She staged die ins and protested at medical conferences. Generally, she raised hell and has inspired a movement that will, no doubt, turn us away from the pink glow that shines on our concept of breast cancer, the year-and-done-and-now-you’re-a-survivor story. 

This article about Beth describes her projects better than I ever could.

I want to end with gratitude that Beth died as she lived—out loud, in the open, bluntly. In the last week of her life, she pinned this post on Twitter:  “Yep, I’m dying.”

Every few days she reminded us that she was dying, and when she died her husband made sure we knew. He continues to remind us how many days have passed and how many others die of metastatic breast cancer every day.

I am a witness to Beth’s wild and precious life. I acknowledge her life and her loss and notice the absence of her words in my life. I send her husband and children and family and friends all the love this world offers to the grieving.

Beth’s one precious life has touched me and shaped me, even if only through her words.

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Filed under: Cancer, Grief, Uncategorized

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