As I begin this piece tonight I find myself faced with putting into words what cannot be, can never be, put into words, because words can only carry us so far into experience. Tonight I am faced with an attempt to put into words the enormity of the events of these last days, weeks, months, even years that have piled on, each one unique unto itself and yet combining into what is now greater, harder, more challenging than all its parts. And yet I am going to try, because the trying perhaps is in itself a healing process.
It began slowly – he said after we were all together that Christmas of 2018, somewhat offhandedly, oh by the way, I am having a CT scan when I get back to Berkeley– maybe have fatty liver. Not too much alarm there – then in January the startling news of a tumor in the liver, size of a softball. Surgery to come. Removal of two-thirds of his liver in March, 2019. Reports – it is not primary liver cancer, it is bile-duct cancer. What? Very rare. OF course. Not well understood.
The fight began. He, a scientist and geneticist, participated fully in his treatment, sought information, found clinical trials. A trial he entered gave him, remarkably, almost 21 months of additional, high-quality life. In spite of COVID he thrived, creating family connections and friend connections across the globe, hosting as he always did, connecting others.
November, 2020 – she called, having experience shortness of breath – went to the ER for removal of a liquid surrounding the lungs. In the process of this, a CT scan revealed an abdominal mass. When surgically removed and reviewed – ovarian cancer of a rare and slow-growing type (which meant not responsive to chemo). In January of 2021 she entered a clinical trial. She did very well.
Suddenly things began to change. For him, the clinical trial stopped working. The cancer invaded the biliary tree in the liver, and all attempts to help bile leave the liver were unavailing. Although another trial showed promise, the fight to get there was lost. He left us on May 2, 2021, having survived 21 months post-diagnosis of a type of cancer that rarely if ever allows for more than months of life.
And while all this was happening, she was doing well. A dancer, a lover of nature, she thrived on this beautiful island. From January 2021 to June 2021 she was upbeat, feeling good, feeling positive, enjoying life in paradise, her name for her home on Maui.
Suddenly things began to change. A sensation of pressure in her legs – unclear origin. Suddenly problems with digestion. Next discomfort in abdomen – visit to ER revealing fluid gathered in the abdomen, which when drained showed signs of advanced cancer. Further hospitalization showed the cancer suddenly invading all major organs.
She went home to her beloved partner and entered hospice care on June 30. We arrived – her sisters, her niece, her brother-in-law – on July 3. She knew us. She thanked us for coming.
She left us on July 4, 2021.
A brother. A sister. Both younger than I – ages 70 and 67. Both lost to rare cancers that overwhelmed the best efforts and best care each could have. There is no one to blame. Everyone loved them and fought hard for them, but the cancers were relentless in their proliferation. They both died surrounded by those who loved them.
And now, those who loved them are faced with the daily task of getting up each day and living lives from which their daily presence is gone. Those who loved them have to pick up the pieces of life, to face the bureaucracy of death, the death certificates, the computer passwords, the search for things like safe deposit box keys, the bank accounts.
Those who loved them have to distribute their earthly possessions, decide what to keep, what to give, what to do with the remains of a life.
And yet most of all, those who loved them are faced with walking through each day with the reality of their absence. Many things are said about death – but for me the truth is that death is absence and loss of the precious connection between human souls. I carry them with me in my heart, but I want to hear them, and talk with them, and remember with them, and that will never be again.
So today I mourn the loss of my brother Glenn Hammonds and my sister Lindsay Hammonds – two bright stars who blazed through this world too quickly and left it too soon. I am only at the beginning of the journey of grief. Today I can only feel the loss. Perhaps happy memories will help, but not yet.
Friends, hold each other close. Don’t wait to be together. These COVID months have stopped us in so many ways – but for COVID I would have spent months with each of them instead of having to wait for vaccination to make it safe to go. I am grateful I was able to be with both of them before they died. Don’t wait. Life is not a given, and we are given now, but nothing else is sure.