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I think anyone who participates in care giving or healing aspires to be a Cheater of Death. We rescue, we treat, we nurse, we ease pain - sometimes we cause a little more in the process of curing. We seek to extend life. It's a dirty, exhausting, heart-wrenching quest, and when we fail (because no amount of love and hard work can result in immortality) we take it to heart.

Champagne is the latest in a string of loved ones I've lost to cancers. It doesn't matter what label you slap on it, they all work the same way. There's fever as the body tries to fight off the invasion. This is often coupled by some physical irregularity and a sense of unease. As the cancer usurps healthy cells and converts them to its nefarious purpose, the immune system pulls out all the stops. Metabolism increases, cell counts fluctuate - a war is waged. Yet all available resources go to the marauder, not the home team. In the end they lose their appetite and all but starve to death. I speculate that the signal to stop eating is a last ditch effort on the part of the healthy cells to maintain their integrity. It shouldn't have to come to that.

Death is a foreign land; no one who is alive truly knows its topography. Laden with knowledge of the body and its functions as well as anecdotal evidence, I struggle to come to grips with the transition that awaits us all. How do we know it doesn't hurt to die? How can I console someone I love that they're going to a better place when I haven't the faintest idea what that trip is actually like? I told Champagne she was going where we all go, and that I hoped it would be everything she needed. In 2007 I read an article in Men's Health that described a man being revived an hour and a half after flat lining. How do we know when someone is actually dead? How long does one float over one's body, hoping to be resuscitated, before finally moving on? Is that what ghosts are - people who don't want to go?

I have seen something missing after the moment of demise, witnessed the soul leaving the glove. Sunday night I wondered if Champagne had reincarnated as the insect that kept flying in my face. Who's to say she wouldn't accept a different form for another chance at life with me? That may sound arrogant; I know I would do the same for her. Our "us"-ness - that part that separates from our corporeal form when it gives up - is what makes loss so difficult. We don't love the body, it's just a representation of the form we loved somebody in.

If that makes so much sense, why does it distress me that Champagne's spotted frame has been in the hands of strangers for 77 hours? They cremated her yesterday evening. All I could think was that she didn't belong with them, she needed to come home with me. I could make everything alright. I could blow on her belly, wiggle her ears, give her a marshmallow.... Already I remember her well and happy; I had to guard myself against the temptation to see her still, skinny, ravaged body one last time. Bone, marrow, blood, lungs, lymph nodes, brain - cancer raped it all. The notion that people she would have bitten in life would reduce her to ashes, and I not there to protect her, sickened me.

I am a healer, a giver, a Cheater of Death. I grieve for Champagne for all the usual reasons, and I face the additional loss of service. Caring for her became increasingly demanding and time-consuming. I no longer have to wake up an hour early to spoon feed her, spend fifteen minutes coaxing her outside to pee, give pills, clean up, get her settled, etc. The abrupt cessation of manifest love has left me in a thick fog. I would rather feel my way forward through grief than sit with it and risk it closing over me.

So I made soup.

Soup is love; it's comfort in a cup. I brought homemade tomato and the makings of grilled cheese sandwiches to school. Many of my classmates have supported me through this and other difficulties. I am profoundly grateful for their comfort and acceptance. I thought about taking this week off, but it's too hard to be at home. What was a very selfish act - needing to help others, knowing that I'd be more likely to eat in a group - became a remarkable blessing. Students in the same department who had never met shook hands. Smiles of surprise, delight, and satisfaction lifted faces. The rules were bent about 90 degrees, and nobody seemed to mind. O59, previously a dark storage room, rang with laughter, learning, and music. Sitting on the floor surrounded by friends, I didn't hurt so deeply. I came a little closer to healing through giving. I cheated Death with soup.

Tomorrow morning strangers will place the cremains of my little girl in my hands. I will be unprepared for how light and small and unfamiliar she is. I will cry. Then I will give myself over to the embrace of the musical community of which I am part. I will be swept up in accompanying and learning and life. I will practice in a room that will smell of today's tomato basil and grilled cheese, a sensory baptism into my new life. A sober life without Champagne, but no less full of love.

Madeline RosenbergComment