Sunflowers on the cancer journey

Sunflowers on the cancer journey

I was driving down I-290 a few days ago. It’s a typical asphalt and cement affair–bumpy patches, bits of litter. Along the cement divider there are some weeds, but not many, poking up through the gravel. I was struck by the sight of a sunflower, growing alongside a few weeds.

Who knows how it got there? A random act of nature, maybe with a little help from industry. Seems unlikely that someone would have intentionally planted it there. Would you risk cars and semis to get to the middle of an interstate to plant a sunflower? Maybe you would. You may well be one of the romantic, life-loving risk takers who seek to bring organic beauty to a sweltering, fast world.

In any case, it was alive and sported the inimitable orangey yellow flower with the sunflower seed middle.

I guess life is like this sometimes, for people too. A beautiful soul, randomly growing in the midst of the inhospitable, where water and sun and car fumes dominate. I love to see something this beautiful growing for no better reason than because it is its nature.

Life can be tenacious and resolute. What future can that sunflower have? It has no company except for trash and a few scrappy weeds. No one is tending it.

Still, it draws in the rain and relishes the sun, even if they end up failing to sustain life. It still produces seeds that feed birds and create new sunflowers.

It still brightens my world as I speed past it.

Several of my friends are inching toward death, on the front porch of hospice care. We all handle cancer and illness and mortality differently. Some smile in the face of it, or laugh. Some worry. Some suffer. Some concede early on. Some fight. We all eventually lose of course.

There’s not one way. I’m an advocate of people confronting death in their own way. We are not here to be cheerful so that others can be inspired. Not in this last part. Still, I know many deeply inspiring people.

I had a very good friend who raged, raged at the end. She died angry and cantankerous. I don’t blame her. She left behind a young daughter and was just coming into the height of her career. She was in the best shape of her life, she told me, when she was diagnosed with cancer. She was so young. Her cancer was probably caused by pesticides used on corn in the fields where she worked in the summer as a teenager. She was a three-dimensional, completely honest person. She didn’t make things easy, and I loved her for that. I’m so grateful my daughter met her and saw that ferocity.

I have another friend who is gentle, strong, resolute, quiet. She is deeply hurt that she is leaving her children without a mom. She has tried every option, and she is squeezing out every drop of energy and sustenance this world offers. She is full of hope, but she’s preparing for the inevitable.

And then another woman, who embodies acceptance. For every day and moment and second, she is doing what she can. She is traveling, taking grandchildren on special trips, spending time with children, babysitting their kids when she can, shopping for the next holiday and the next birthday. She says the last 22 months, since a terminal diagnosis, have been the best of her life because she is conscious of everything. She savors a glass of wine, a visit to the ocean, time with the people she loves. She’s afraid to die because she won’t get everything done that she wants to do. She has always been aware of death’s approach, but having made peace with it, she’s able to live vigorously and invest in life.

Facing impending death is something I can’t really imagine. People do it so many ways. They’re angry, sad, at peace. They fight, give in, retreat. They accept and embrace.

Knowing these women and seeing a sunflower along the interstate is a privilege and a gift.

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