What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other? – George Eliot
I met Alinta Thornton shortly after I moved to Sydney.
Sitting in the front section of Grub and Tucker on King Street, Newtown, her hair was a wicked red with pinkish highlights. She was drinking strong coffee and ordering cake. She said something sharp to the waiter – I couldn’t discern what – but it looked and sounded critical. The waiter scurried back soon after, humbled.
This is my first memory of Alinta, but not nearly my best. It does cast a shadow of her figure though, and all the beautiful elements that mingled there.
We’d been blogging friends for a year and a half. We bonded through a couple of different interests and soon became regular followers of each other’s often daily entries. She was a mother hen on the internet; she supplied advice that was full of weight and thought-out and sometimes terribly hard to take. But you knew she was right.
She was also a wit. Some of her observations were hilarious.
In fits and starts, I got to know her. We became close, and she observed as I navigated the new city with a mixture of success and oblivious failure. She face-palmed as I involved myself with the wrong people, and cheered as I worked out my miss-steps and got it right.
Alinta became like a big sister, an aunt, and a vicious teasing girlfriend all at once. She became a true mentor and very soon, her advice was that which I sought first and respected most. Her partner Julian became an ever closer ally too, and as time wound on we became good friends.
Now I wish that time hadn’t marched forth. I wish I’d snap frozen it the first time I met her, not allowed another moment to pass.
I knew Alinta was sick long before I met her. Her blog recorded the journey, the appointments, the horrible dreams.
Terminal breast cancer is something you really can only understand if you either have it, or are helping someone with it die. I’ve learned that you should never, ever say to someone with cancer “oh I know just how you feel, because my nan’s sister’s cousin’s aunt had a mole removed.” I’ve learned that unless you’re 100% sure that you’re living what that person is living – you should probably shut the fuck up.
There was a team of us with her, by the end. A round table of friends and lovers, headed by Julian, the ship’s captain who bore the vast majority of the burden (and the heaviest pull being felt now).
We were all pulling our oars one way: to comfort the lady, the lady we all loved. I participated in a small way; thrice weekly I came by to clean and serve meals and be around for chatter and comfort. We all came, mainly, to fill the house and be felt – I know I was desperate to bring some warmth to the chilly fear and anger and frustration that emanated from her. I know I didn’t succeed, and I’m not surprised. I am, after all, not able for that task because you can’t salve the knowledge of impending death.
And this brings me to the point of my point. My point is not that Alinta is gone and that I miss her, though these are good things to say. Nor is that she was magnificent and the world is poorer without her, though this too is true.
My point is that there are too many lies about death and dying. There is far, far too much lying about how we face our own extinction.
I hear people say all the time that their relative made their peace with death, or that one can be consoled by this or that. I hear people making a myriad of excuses that manifest as spiritual, philosophical and emotional mumbo jumbo that amount to little more than a heartfelt, avoidant and irritating lie.
The lie is that people who are aware that they dying are not scared. We, the living who watch them get eaten alive by diseases and syndromes and horrible, uncontrollable breakages of the body, really want to believe that they are not scared because their fear is big and palpable and confronting. This is why we make bullshit up, because it helps us cope.
Our lying is about us not them. This seems to be unbelievably selfish.
Alinta told me in no uncertain terms that she was terrified of death. She was absolutely packing it. She ranted and railed and wrote pages about her fear dreams. In them, her cancer took the shape of different people and did horrible things to her – tricked her, trapped her, put her in horrifying situations. She wept, she screamed, she said NO to death in a loud and unhappy voice; very afraid. Alinta didn’t lie.
I’m not sure she was as scared, on the last day I saw her. But by then, my lady was drifting away from us already, not quite herself anymore. I ran home in the rain from St Vincent’s, barreling down Oxford st, my heart and throat all clogged and heavy and the rain and tears a singular muck.
Why, why is it so important that we stop lying about how utterly scary death is? If it brings us comfort, why stop?
I think it is important that we stop because our rhetoric and our fucking around with words that serve mostly to comfort ourselves are silencing the people who need us to be real, to be the most real we can be – because they don’t have much time.
They certainly don’t have enough time to bear up under our false platitudes, our falsely wise nods and smiles and crappy excuses in our impossible quest to settle their fevered emotions to a ‘safe’ modulation. They’re dealing with enough.
I feel that we need to be able to look the anguish of someone’s pants-pissing terror in the face, to see that the face is our mother’s or brother’s or lover’s own face, and hold their hand and be with them in that moment. It is bold and humane and loving and right to grasp someone and be in that with them.
I can’t bear to provide some incentive, some quaint little insight we may gain from this. A lesson, or a cute koan that is our cookie for being present in the moments of fear, the days of fear, the weeks and months and years of fear with someone who is dying.
Here’s the point now, the whole. damn. point :
When you’re beside a being whose earthly existence is about to truncate, it ceases to even remotely be about you. You have become the ferryman and the dark ride you are taking is most assuredly across the Styx. You are watching them go to oblivion.
The gift you give by holding fast to your oar is the very small, but I hope precious feeling of the warmth of another person’s hand while the most shattering woe imaginable sweeps through someone. Can you imagine? Nothing can avert the danger. Imagine the panic, the sledgehammer screaming towards them.
It doesn’t seem so hard then, to cut a few permanent holes in your living fabric to make room for the pain of another.
To make it a little less difficult, even if only for the space of the drop of a heart beat.
In memory of Alinta Thornton. Missed, every day.