From time to time, I look at her remnants – the belts hanging in the closet, framed pictures of her with her children when they were still young, jewelry, notes in the back of old cookbooks. But it’s the medicine cabinet that always gets me.
My stepmother died on New Year’s Eve two years ago from advanced breast cancer. Although I knew her for more than 20 years, I knew so little about her – isn’t that so often the case in life? But the strange thing is, in some ways I’ve gotten to know her more after her death by what she left behind: a cabinet full of medicine.
Lately I’ve been writing descriptions of cancer drugs for a website, and with each medication comes, of course, a list of possible side effects. We have heard them all before – nausea, vomiting, swelling, loss of appetite, hair loss, weakness, dizziness, dry skin, peeling skin, blistering skin, muscle pain, back pain, joint pain, and on and on. It’s not that any of this was news to me, but somehow seeing the list for drug after drug after drug made me realize what she was going through. And it brought me back to the medicine cabinet that I have often stood in front of since she’s died. Standing there, looking at the bottles, I understand a little bit more of what she was going through. The moisturizers, the sleep aids, the anti-gas pills.
She was so dignified and beautiful, and treasured her ability to appear unharmed so as not to bother anyone with her complaints and so as not to appear weakened by the disease. But hidden behind the flair that she always managed to bring to even the plainest of outfits was a body being ravaged, first by the slow (then rapid) spread of cancer throughout her body, and then by the side effects of the poisons she was taking to kill the cells. She was given several extra years of life by powerful medications, that’s for sure. But I have to wonder about how little I knew about what she was experiencing. When we heard that the security guard at the hospital where she was treated had come to her bedside in her final hours, having been touched by their interactions over the years, I realized how little I knew about her experience with breast cancer. It was only later, through studying the contents of her post-mortem medicine cabinet, that I could get any sense, and that was a vague one at best.
Somehow, I understand a little more now the fact that behind every prescription is a person. It’s great when something that you know in your mind becomes a bit more tangible, a bit more within grasp, and a bit more real. There’s no sadness attached here, just a wonder about what life is like for the person behind the pill bottle.
So, I hope you don’t mind this musey rather than newsy post for today. Wishing everyone a very happy Thanksgiving filled with thanks — and side dishes.