Goodbye my friend

My friend, Ricki Hayes, had lost her long and painful battle with triple negative breast cancer. I will miss her.

Death was expected. I received a message from her beloved and endlessly supportive husband of 37 years, Terry, on the 28th of December. She was in pain which the doctors were managing “as best they can” and it seemed she only had a few more days. My sadness at her passing is tempered with genuine relief that she is no longer in pain. I nursed my father during his lost battle with cancer and I can appreciate how distressing this last ten days must have been for Ricki and her family.

I met Ricki through the Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) site when I started sharing some of my blog posts with other women dealing with breast cancer. Rick was a long term survivor and still spent time on the site offering support and encouragement to other women. She started following my blog and was often the only person to comment on something I had written. On days when I contemplated abandoning it all, it was Ricki that encouraged me to keep going, to keep writing. “You put into words what so many of us are struggling to say.”

It was Ricki that first suggested I should write a book about dealing with the fear of recurrence that plaques people living with cancer, and people dealing with life after cancer. I am certain I would never have written it without her encouragement. She was the first person to receive a final copy of the book.

Rick described herself to me as “ordinary”. She was a devoted mother and grandmother, a loving wife and like so many women, she wore many other hats. Her career as a teacher earned her a legion of loving ex-students and her involvement in her church gave her a community of faithful friends.

Her commitment to helping other women with cancer went beyond the online support she so frequently offered through BCNA. She volunteered to allow researchers to test new drugs and methods on her. “If being their guinea pig can save someone else then that’s enough for me,” she told me. She was also an active online advocate for a host of important issues, including marriage equity, access to medical cannabis and the PBS listing of potentially life saving cancer drugs, including Keytruda, that are currently too expensive for most people. She talked openly about what life with metastatic cancer was like, and supported so many other women going through a parallel experience.

When Ricki knew she had reached the end of her treatment options and that a slow decline into death had become inevitable, she sent me a short message to let me know and I wrote back expressing my sympathy and support. I am still struck by her reply. Here it is:

Thanks for your calming words Meg. As I was showering …(.best thinking place without distractions and love the sound of running water!!!) how liberating I felt knowing I could spend time and energy on ‘living’ rather than always feeling as if I was fighting an enermy/ pushing through nausea etc 😊 I know there will be days that are tough….thats part of normal life anyway, but the feeling of liberation the I have today far outweighs anything else. I have been and are blessed in SO many ways, how dare I complain when there is so much suffering by those who are displaced by war, greed and the push for power.

I’ve had the excitement of adventures at home & overseas; the privilege of study and encouraging little minds to delve into the future; to feel suffering so I can better understand and walk with others who are there; but mostly I have known so much joy and that is what I wish to focus on. My family, my friends near and far, my environment … wherever I find myself each day….the other things I cant control so I’ll leave them to those who specialise in them!

Real freedom comes when we truly realise and accept the inevitability of life. Then we can begin to live!

Thank you for your support encouragement, knowledge, friendship and love.

I would not have been at all surprised or critical if Ricki had been despondent or angry at the news that there was nothing other than palliative care available to her, but here she was rejoicing. Life was wonderful. She was going to keep living every second of it, right up until the point when she couldn’t. Her compassion for others and her love for family and friends was always at the heart of who Ricki was, and that’s how I’ll remember her.

Real freedom comes when we truly realise and accept the inevitability of life. Then we can begin to live. Yes. YES. We are all dying. When we come to understand that, all the way down to our temporary bones, something wonderful happens.

In early November I headed down to Sydney for what I knew would probably be my last visit with Ricki. She had sent me messages about the pain she was experiencing and the endless rounds of radiation they were giving her in an attempt to reduce some of the tumours. I expected to see a frail shadow of my friend. Instead I was met with laughter and jokes about dying. Surrounded by flowers, Ricki told me that her dearest wish was to have one last Christmas with her family. Terry tells me they spent it going through photos and enjoying happy memories together. I’m so glad she got her wish. She went downhill quickly after Christmas. I suspect she had been hanging on by sheer force of will but Ricki would no doubt want me to credit God.

Making friends with other people dealing with cancer is fraught. On the one hand, you have so much in common, and on the other there is a reasonable caution about forming close bonds with someone that clearly has a life threatening illness. Will we come to care about each other only to grieve? I would not have missed the opportunity to become Ricki’s friend. We have been through some rough times together and sometimes the only person that can really understand the internal landscape of cancer treatment is someone that has travelled it. The black humour is too much for the uninitiated and our desire to spare our families our darkest thoughts makes these kinds of friendships very special. At one point it looked like I might die before Ricki. Her friendship never wavered.

This is real friendship. Holding tight to each other when you know that death might be just around the corner. Sharing messages of support like notes passed under a desk in a classroom when you know that those messages might be uncomfortable or confronting for others. Fiercely hoping, sometimes against the odds, that survival is possible and ultimately, accepting death with the joyful grace that Ricki has taught me. I will live a better life for knowing her. I will die a better death.

Farewell my dear friend. My heart goes out to your precious family, particularly Kathryn who is so like my Zoe. You will live on in their hearts and in mine.

I wanted to say you were anything but ordinary. I don’t want to contradict you. Instead I will say this; you demonstrated that an ordinary life can be a very extraordinary thing. All my love and gentle hugs.