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The Cause of Death

Posted Jul 09 2012 12:16pm
Sue Clement Cohen
September 25, 1943 - July 8, 2012

Years ago, while training to become a hospice volunteer, my mother completed a worksheet on which participants were asked to imagine their own obituaries, complete with age at death, cause of death, and information about memorial plans and survivors. One line above all stays with me. She wrote, "The cause of death was having been born."

My mother never objected to death, neither in general nor - this seems rarer - in the particular. She also did not object to cancer. She did not hate cancer, did not feel especially blighted by it, bitter about it, unfairly stricken. Her orientation to cancer did not include war metaphors; she was not "battling" disease or "fighting" illness, never spoke of "beating" it or "winning" against it. In fact she was clear and unapologetic about articulating the inaccuracy of those phrases, their inability to describe her own experience. For her, cancer was not a zero-sum game.

This is not to say she wished for or welcomed it. This is not to say she liked it. This is not to say there was anything passive about her relationship to cancer, or to death, or to life.

She spoke of "living into" the experience of cancer and in this way treated it no differently than she had every other experience she ever encountered: living into each with fullness, presentness, a spirit of adventure and ceaseless curiosity. She regarded cancer as kind of teacher, and in doing so taught those of us around her it was possible to regard it this way. She regarded it as yet another in a boundless stream of opportunities to grow, and so helped us grow from it, too.

I do a terrible disservice if I give the impression of sanguinity, complacency, beatification - she possessed none of these qualities. She lived not a state of certainty and accomplishment but in a state of radiant struggle. She was at her best when challenged, when at work.

All her life she loved, almost above anything else, snow. I think of the Rilke quote, "To love is good, too; love being difficult." Only now does it strike me, and not speculatively but with strange and sudden surety: her love of snow was inseparable from snow's being difficult too.
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