It is an undeniable fact of life that mountains are always beautiful. Dr. Wife’s beeper had gone off at the Waffle House so she made a quick cell phone call. Instead of leisurely finishing off our breakfast served by a harried elderly waitress, we headed up the two lane state highway through the foothills and up the Blue Ridge mountains to the hamlet of Sparta where a woman’s death certificate waited to be signed.
She had been a woman in her early 60’s from France who had met a GI and returned with him to the county in North Carolina where he had been born. There she settled down to raise her children and later, her grandchildren. Her husband had passed away years ago, leaving her alone in her small cottage nestled in a mountain valley. After the decades spent living in the United States she had never managed to rid herself of her French accent, which, when added to the southern accent she naturally became accustomed to through the years, made her speak English with an Acadian or Cajun-sounding accent. Dr. Wife loved the way she spoke.
Dr. Wife met her patient for the first time in July after she came to her with back pain in her tailbone. While talking with the woman, Dr. Wife became suspicious that the pain was more than a bruise or muscle strain as had been diagnosed elsewhere. Such pain doesn’t linger or worsen over a period of months as the pain had for her patient, so she ordered a CT scan. At first the woman’s insurance company refused to cover the procedure, forcing Dr. Wife to justify the procedure in a lengthy phone call with the insurance company. It relented and the procedure was done.
The CT scan was clear: her body was filled with cancer. It cancer had begun in the lung and metastasized to the liver and later to the bottom of the spine. In fact it had eaten away a large hole in the woman’s coccyx, and the Wife was furious because the woman must have been in terrible pain. People in the mountains are different, she says; they don’t come to the doctor unless they are extremely sick and they never ask for medication even when they are in pain. Life in the mountains is beautiful, but it is far from easy, so the people that remain there are hardier than most. They are extremely tough mountain folk that have lived there for generations, and even though her patient had been born in Europe, she had arrived and over time gradually become one of them.
After signing the death certificate at the funeral home, we stopped by her home. A “Slow – Funeral” sign greeted us as we neared it, and a large cross made from white carnations hung on the porch. There a few weeks ago the woman had stood with the Wife, telling her “I am going to beat this.” But Dr. Wife knew that this cancer wasn’t beatable. I pulled up, parking alongside several other cars parked on the grass off the road. I stayed in the car with our dogs as the Wife went inside. Over the past few weeks she had grown close to the family, giving the eldest son our home phone number so that he could call with any question or concerns about his mother.
Bird feeders the woman had bought and filled hung empty of seed beneath trees losing their leaves. Little kitschy figurines of a smiling panda and fat frog stood in a garden that she had once tended, with the first weeds that had taken advantage of her weakness from chemo appearing in soil she would never touch again. Several wind chimes hung from the roof of the porch, motionless in the unusually still mountain air.
From diagnosis to death? 8 weeks.
Like many living in the mountains, she was a heavy smoker and it no doubt contributed to if not outright caused her cancer. Some might be tempted to blame the woman for her own death. After all she chose to smoke. But she didn’t choose to die. I often wonder if the excuses we make blaming the victims for their own deaths aren’t just emotional survival mechanisms to keep us from feeling. A woman is killed by her ex-husband? She should have divorced him sooner or gotten a restraining order. A cop is shot during a routine traffic stop? He knew the risks. I suppose it’s natural to develop this inner voice to keep Death at arms length and avoid being overwhelmed by emotions, but I question whether over time that distancing is healthy. Perhaps a little empathy in our lives isn’t a bad thing. If we feel we can motivate ourselves into action which in turn can lead to Death being cheated every once in a while.
With a hug from the eldest son, the Wife arrives back in the car. She raises a long strand of a wind chime with handmade brass chimes and carved wooden clappers. “She wanted me to have this,” she says, explaining that the woman knew we had once lived in Japan where the wind chime was made. It hangs on our front porch, and I hear it lightly singing in the wind that comes off the mountains the French woman called home.