Pretend burial.

Earlier this week, hurtling along I-40 on one of my final daily trips to radiation, I heard this thing on the radio about a teambuilding exercise that an employer in South Korea is using to raise worker morale.

During the exercise, employees dress in long robes and sit at low desks. Each writes a letter to a loved one as if it were their last correspondence. Sniffling and even outright weeping is acceptable.

Next to each desk is a big wooden box. But not an ordinary wooden box. The kind of wooden box that is a coffin.

When the workers are done with the letter, they lie down in the coffin and someone pretending to be the Angel of Death comes around and hammers the top shut. They lie in the dark inside the coffin for about ten minutes. The idea is that when they re-emerge they will have a new perspective on life, one that will make them more passionate about their work and appreciative of their lives.

This Christmas week was supposed to be the last hurrah of 6 weeks of radiation—my last day scheduled for the 23rd, and then one whole day to pull Christmas together. Overall, despite the challenges of the last few months, I was feeling pretty hopeful and festive—beloved family coming in to town, the magic of internet shopping/wine drinking after kid bedtime, class parties, piano recitals, baking, the culmination of this whole mess of treatment seeming to be almost slipping into the rearview mirror. The only thing that was getting me down was my nagging back, which just seemed to not really be improving as quickly as I wished. I was feeling a little 90-year-oldish, but hanging in there—pushing through it when I could.

I thought about the Korean work burial a number of times. Intriguing, but the mandatory-ness felt kind of heavy handed. And I was skeptical about the boss’s clear expectation that his workers would reemerge with renewed vigor to work harder.

Still, it resonated with me that a serious, vivid envisioning of one’s own death could be a rewarding and enriching experience—a chance to take stock in that way we sometimes try to do at New Years but it gets all clogged up with booziness and roman candles and overpriced meals.

The Korean boss—who used to work at a funeral home—also has his employees engage in a rousing exercise of forced laughter before they sit down at their desks in the morning. Supposedly it stimulates the system, and if done regularly and convincingly enough can replicate the benefits of genuine laughter.

The night before my second to last treatment had been a particularly rough one—lots of spasms, hard to stand up and use the bathroom. At one point it took me around 45 minutes to summon the strength to walk down the hall to the office to get a roll of tape for present wrapping.

John drove me in to my radiation appointment that morning, and I needed a wheelchair, as I sometimes have these past few weeks. The receptionists slapped the yellow FALL RISK bracelet on my arm as they have done a number of times since early November. Radiation went well, as normal—Motown Christmas carols over the speaker—but when I mentioned to one of the techs that my pain was bad again and I was having a hard time peeing because my muscles were so tight, someone paged the doctor.

I already had an orthopedist appointment scheduled for the next day, but someone said, The quickest way to check this out is to send you to the ED and get an MRI. They were apologizing, but I was relieved. My biggest worry was that we would be there so long I would miss some of my afternoon commitments and I’d still be in pain.

An hour or so later—down a quiet hallway of rooms of gowned patients lying flat like me on their backs inside tight loud tubes, silent patients in their beds being wheeled to and from these sterile basement rooms, the pretend burial exercise came back to me again. As the machine clanked and buzzed and zapped all around me for about an hour as I lay impeccably still there in my hospital gown I thought Forget the angel of death. The angel of medical imaging is loud and terrifying enough. I would have six more similar scans in the coming days.

I did emerge with some euphoria. That machine reminds me a lot of what it feels like to stand inside my son’s room during ‘band practice.’ I said to the techs. I felt very at home. Thanks so much for that retreat.

 I’m not half bad at the forced laughing thing, either.

Now you just need to wait an hour or so for the results, which we will try to expedite, the ER nurse said, and we can get you out of here. So, John sat in the little chair in our little room eating gross hospital food and fussing with social media. I think I had some naps and maybe some pain meds that made the world of metaphorical dying simulation quite lovely and ethereal.

When the results did come back (very quickly!), it turned out it was the sucky job of the ER attending—who I hadn’t met yet—to remove the word “metaphorical” from the whole situation.

He was so young and cheerful and decided to start on a bright note: Good news—your labs look mostly normal. Ok.

But one thing to note—seems that you do have a significant fracture in your spine, at the L2 vertebra. And the way it is broken is very worrisome. It’s not a trauma break. It’s a pathological break, likely caused by a tumor that has metastasized from your breast.

I am so sorry, he just kept saying, I hate telling people these things and I’m not very good at it.

The world kind of broke open right there—or maybe the reverse is truer. Maybe the wooden box lid slammed down kind of hard on our heads.

We’re going to admit you up on the oncology ward. You will probably have surgery right away.

A stream of doctors after that—one crouching down to eye level with me, gripping my hand and not pushing away her tears. Another—Dr. Rosenblum—standing over me with the face of a mother whose daughter is very late for curfew. She kept patting my hair. John’s eyes from the visitor chair reflecting my own face back to me again and again: WAIT, WHAT? We kept asking each other, WHAT?

I don’t know what exactly will happen next, but you know that metastases put you at stage four, the crying doctor told us. This is clearly an aggressive cancer. It recurred before we even finished treating it. It’s probably time to put your affairs in order and make a bucket list, as hard as that is to hear.

A fuck-it list, John quickly started calling it—kind of the opposite I guess. What can we just say “fuck it” to and send splashing off into some sewer and not bother ourselves with anymore?

Turns out not many things!

It’s early days still, I know, but there is not a lot of ambiguity in the diagnosis. I will die of this someday pretty soon. But if lying in the wooden box—or the clanking metal tube—or under the hands of a weeping doctor—has underscored anything it is that there is no real fuck-it list.

I want all of it—all the things to do with living—and I want them to keep feeling messy and confusing and even sometimes boring. The hospital transporters bitching about their insane holiday hours. The Queen sitting on my bedside looking me in the eyes and admitting she’s scared. The sound of my extended family playing an improv word game downstairs around the dinner table. My weird chemo hair growing in suddenly in thick chunks. Light sabers cracking Christmas ornaments. A science fair project taking shape in some distant room. The drenched backyard full of runoff, and tiny, slimy, uncertain yard critters who had expected to remain buried in months of hard mud, peaking their heads out into this balmy Christmas air, asking WAIT, WHAT?

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Pretend burial.

  1. I am completely without words. I want to hear that this is all a horrific mistake that you can walk away from — my whole family is thinking of you, sending you love, and hope.

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  2. I am sitting here trying to write my mothers eulogy for her Tuesday funeral, feeling very lost and orphaned. Reading this just plugged me back in to life, dear Nina. The lid is off my box…. and I know that I will probably read this piece over Again and again, remembering how full of life a person with true vision can be. I wish I was there to clean your closets or help you dye your hair pink or whatever the heck comes into your mind to try. Your magnificent light is shining brightly, lighting the way for the rest of us schlumps. Love is flowing from DC.

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  3. Powerful writing. I’m at a loss to know what to write back. I prayed for you and John this morning. From what John has posted, I still feel some hope for a better ending.
    Art

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  4. To Cancer: “fuck it”, about all I can say “fuck it ” to. And too.

    I enjoyed your post so much, along with your other posts.

    Gritty life- good, bad, ugly- all something we like to cling too and desire. None of us are getting out of here alive- the ethereal side lies in wait.

    Meanwhile – enjoy every boring, lovely detail that you can summon to keep in your memories and give to your children as their memories- you are a light in this world!

    I asked God a special favor prayer – of letting you stay here a whole lot longer than it looks like now. So far, this (writing of yours- your post) has been my answer; which makes me feel utterly, shape shiftingly, crushed. Apparently I may not getting my way- at least as it looks now. That really bums me out. And if that isn’t enough – I can only imagine your pain and sorrow.

    So- I am your cousin. A cousin that barely knows you- except ,something in me knows your heart, your far reaching goodness, and amazing intellect. I have had a stolen little moment or two or three maybe, tiny fractional memories that I have actually shared with you in person. I know you- yet I don’t. Our family is an amazing family- so I know you are one of those dear people that surround me on the periphery, with love.

    Do you know-( I think you saw me respond to a picture of you on FB – a long time ago)- I saw you as me and me as you for one frozen moment- It was the first picture where I saw this amazing family resemblance in you- that was me. And now this is happening!

    In that moment I felt this unique bonding with you. And it stayed with me. I don’t know why. It just makes me feel closer to you, and yet we have shared so little in terms of real moments- connected, connecting in this short life.

    And now time grows short… although I think God can arrange some Supernatural stuff- So I hope it ain’t so! Please continue to share your larger than life heart. Lots of hugs to all your boys and I will keep talking to the big guy. (If not for you , than for me, about you)

    Wishing you well with lots of love! Keep up this fine writing- it is a fine legacy to leave- no matter when you leave us- later, or aged 93. Thanks for this precious gift to all of us. It is how you are spending that time- and very profoundly for me, and those you share your heart and soul with. A true gift!

    Thanks for that! oxoxoxox- KImberly

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  5. To Cancer: “fuck it” that is all I can say “fuck it” to. And too.
    I enjoyed your post so much, along with your other posts
    Gritty life- good, bad, ugly- all something we like to cling too and desire. None of us are getting out of here alive- the ethereal side lies in wait.
    Meanwhile- enjoy every boring, lovely detail that you can summon to keep in your memories and give to your children as their memories- you are a light in this world!
    I asked God a special favor prayer- of letting you stay here a whole lot longer than it looks like now- So far, this (writing of yours- your post) has been my answer- which makes me feel utterly- shape shiftingly- crushed. Apparently I may not be getting my way- at least as it looks now. That really bums me out. And if that isn’t enough- I can only imagine your pain and sorrow.
    So- I am your cousin. A cousin that barely knows you- except, something in me knows your heart, your far reaching goodness, and amazing intellect. I have had a stolen little moment or two or three maybe, tiny fractional memories that I have actually shared with you in person. I know you- yet I don’t. Our family is an amazing family- so I know you are one of those dear people that surround me on the periphery, with love.
    Do you know? ( I think you saw me respond to a picture of you on FB – a long time ago)- I saw you as me and me as you, for one frozen moment- It was the first picture where I saw this amazing family resemblance in you- that was me. And now this is happening!
    In that moment I felt this unique bonding with you. And it stayed with me. I don’t know why. It just makes me feel closer to you, and yet we have shared so little in terms of real moments- connected, connecting in this short life.
    And now time grows short… although I think God can arrange some Supernatural stuff- So I hope it ain’t so! Please continue to share your larger than life heart. Lots of hugs to all your boys and I will keep talking to the big guy. (If not for you , than for me, about you)
    Wishing you well with lots of love! Keep up this fine writing- it is a fine legacy to leave- no matter when you leave us- now, later, or aged 93. Thanks for this precious gift to all of us. It is how you are spending that time- and very profoundly for me, and those you share your heart and soul with. A true gift!
    Thanks for that! oxoxoxox- KImberly

    Like

  6. I have no words to capture my feeling after reading this. But, Nina, you found all the best words to share your story with us. I am grateful for you and your precious gift of writing. Its so beautiful, and gut-wrenching and I am so sorry for your pain. Sending my love and prayers. Thank you, Nina.
    Your childhood friend,
    Laurie Craigen

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  7. Hey Nina, my sister told me about your blog and the awful news it contained. I too have been picturing that white healing light and sending some your way — also added you to the prayer list of our local church here in Arlington, MA, and am gonna send some prayers from the Hindu monastery in Kauai when I visit there in February. So from the ends of the earth, you’ll be covered!

    Am hoping you’ll be able to get back to that island I think of as “summer country,” even when the seasons don’t agree. Sending you lots of faith, hope, and love. Adam

    Like

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