Today’s guest post is written by Caitlin Perry and brought to you in partnership with our Over The Top Sponsor Breezy Hill Marketing.

Breezy Hill Marketing provides support and funding for Maggie’s Brightside. Breezy Hill Marketing is a Vermont owned and operated marketing firm who specialize in inbound marketing and web design for professional services, small businesses and nonprofits.

Caitlin Perry and her daughter

Caitlin Perry is a part time massage therapist and a full time mom. She is passionate about working with clients with cancer, and people with chronic pain and disabilities.  In her free time, Caitlin enjoys making herbal concoctions, gardening, yoga, exploring the woods, and relaxing with her family. She is originally from Colorado but moved to Burlington in 2006 to go to school at University of Vermont where she studied wildlife biology. Although she has not pursued a career in wildlife, Caitlin is a self-proclaimed bird nerd. She now lives in Milton, VT with her husband, daughter, and cat.

We’re All a Little Awkward: My Last Experience with Maggie

I’ve read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Among its many lessons, it told me you should laugh, joke, and be silly around those who are dying. It told me you should just be yourself. Be myself. That seemed like the most important takeaway. But who am I? How can I show my friend who is dying my true nature if this is possibly my last chance?

Talking to someone about their soon-to-be-death is like meeting a bear in the woods. What you’re supposed to do, is look the bear in the eye, back off slowly, don’t turn your back, and speak in low tones as you acknowledge that this is their territory and you will just leave them alone. Sounds easy, but one day in Alaska when I saw a grizzly bear from afar, I gasped for air and scrambled up an embankment, shaking, crawling, and scratching at the ground to get as far away as possible. When I looked back, it was a caribou.

 

I’ll be honest, after I learned of Maggie’s prognosis of only having three months to live, I wanted to run away from Maggie too. To watch from safer ground and maybe wait for more social media posts. I wanted to read that the doctors were wrong, and things were going great. I wanted to avoid the topic of death and find that it was just a caribou all along.

 

I clearly remember that day I saw her, after learning of the news, and still think of it often.

 

“Thank you. Take your time getting up.” I spoke gently as I slowly removed my hands from my clients back and left the serene massage room. I headed straight to the restroom to wash my hands as I always do after a massage, wondering if I’d pass Maggie as she finished up with her acupuncture appointment in the treatment room next door.

{Even now, my fingers become heavy as I remember and write this.} I stared at the water swirling down the drain, imagining what our interaction would be like. What is the right thing to say to someone who is dying? And the right way to say it?

 

At the beginning of my massage career, I’d had the opportunity to work with a wonderful client going through cancer treatments. This experience opened my eyes to the importance of bodywork and relaxation for cancer warriors, so I pursued extra training in oncology massage. In this training, we talked about the vast array of emotions we would experience with our work. We talked about how it’s okay to cry with our clients, to show them we’re human. We had heartfelt conversations about how, sadly but inevitably, a client and a friend would be dying. We talked about how to be there for them in a professional but compassionate way. You can talk and converse all you want, but nothing can truly prepare you for this moment.

 

How could I be myself when, after hearing this news, I felt like a Picasso painting? I stared at the paper towel dispenser as if it were going to dispense a script for me to follow. It didn’t, so I tore off a paper towel as a movie scene flooded into my head.

 

We would hug, as friends, as we had many times before. This time we would both burst into tears during the hug. Not a word would need to be spoken at first. We would just understand each other. I would then say, “I’m so sorry, Maggie”, while nodding my head in disbelief as we exited the hug. She would look down, slightly defeated, but then I’d give her forearms a squeeze while looking deep into her eyes. I wouldn’t need to say anything for her to know that my eyes were saying, “You’ve got this, Maggie. You’re strong!”. I had never talked to anyone about their own imminent death. On top of my sadness, I was nervous, scared, and getting sweaty. I thought this scenario (which now reminds me of a Hallmark movie) was my best bet.

 

               As I was drying my hands I heard an acupuncture treatment room door open, and imagined Maggie stepping up towards the front desk to check out. I opened the door, ready for my big cinematic debut. Instead, my knees locked up when I saw her. “Hi Maggie”, I said as I walked, straight-legged, to stand next to her. There was no one else in the room, so we had the privacy to play out this intimate scene. Maggie replied, “Hi”, but then looked back toward the desk. She wasn’t her bright, bubbly self in this moment.

        “Hey, so, umm… I heard… umm, yeah, I kind of heard about the thing, you know, I’m so sorry, I mean, I know that doesn’t help, but I’m sorry.” My eyes looked directly at hers, but maybe for too long, and too intensely. I sounded like a grocery store self checkout robot.
        “Yeah, it’s pretty shitty.” Maggie chuckled.
        “Can   I Give    You A      Hug   ?” My voice had degraded to a robot from the 80s. Maggie kindly agreed as my stiff arms hinged at the joints to fold around her.
        “Ok, well, I’ll see you next week?” I asked. I was sure I’d see her again.
        “Yeah, maybe.” She replied skeptically, indicating she might not make it until then.
        “No. I WILL see you next week.” I added, before walking to my massage room.

        I couldn’t let that be my last interaction with Maggie. I was surprised when she thought it might be. She always seemed to have so much time to live big. She seemed to have endless space and openness to new ideas, and to listen to others’ stories. So as she was putting her shoes on to leave one last time, I rushed over to her and explained, “I’m sorry I was so awkward back there. I just want you to know that you’ll be in my thoughts.”

        Maggie looked up from her shoes with a big smile. Her cheeks were rosy and full of life. She laughed at me, which felt good, and reassured me, “It’s ok, we’re all a little awkward sometimes. I’ll talk to you soon, Caitlin.” And she walked into the bright day.

        We didn’t talk again, but I sure think about that interaction often. Maybe I didn’t acknowledge her dying in the most graceful of ways. It wasn’t easy, but I showed up. I didn’t run. I thought it was my job to support Maggie in that moment, but in the end, she’s the one who supported me, reassured me, and told me it would be okay. That’s who she was, and nothing was going to change that for her. I also got to show her my true self one last time. It was my awkward side, but we’re all a little awkward sometimes, aren’t we?

 

Thanks Maggie!

Caribou in Alaska

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If you would like to contribute a guest post about how cancer has affected your life, on living with a terminal illness or about your experience with Maggie please email us at infoATmaggiesbrightsideDOTcom