When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I collected quite a few books on breast cancer and she herself passed me a few books of her own. I didn’t read the books at the time, however. It was too difficult for me to read the stories of other women, even the ones who survived and lived to tell their own story, because I was too caught up in my own experience to share in anyone else’s.
Not surprisingly, I especially avoided the stories where the woman diagnosed does not survive. AudreLorde’s profound experience was my first attempt at facing those fears. My mother had survived five years and then some which, if you’ve ever dealt with cancer, is the landmark timeframe. If you survive five years without recurrence, you are considered free from cancer altogether.
I eventually pulled Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye: Recollections and Observations from One Woman’s Final Year from my shelf only recently. The subtitle was enough for me to avoid the book but I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. No, it wasn’t an easy book to read. The first part is a collection of emails written and received in which Picardie shares her fears, her triumphs, and her pain. One of her friends has been diagnosed with AIDS while others try to offer encouragement or consolation even as they themselves are preparing themselves for the grief that will inevitably come.
Then there are letters from readers because essays of her experience were published in Observer Life magazine. All seven of her pieces are included in the book, including one by her sister saying that Ruth Picardie herself no longer has the strength to put her story into words. Her emails become shorter and her pain more evident in the fewer words as her cancer metastasizes and spreads throughout her body.
Page by page, Picardie’s story reveals so much raw truth. Immediately after her sister’s concluding piece for the magazine is shared, there are the short notes, the final words, Picardie herself hand wrote to her toddler twins, still too young to read. The last few pages are written by her husband, the man who survives the terrible loss most of us can only imagine with dread.
From the very start, my heart ached for Picardie. Her wry humor and honesty are a treasure and the world is honestly bereft of a profound voice. I had to put the book down several times, grateful that my mother is still here with me. I put the book down because I felt sad for her surviving friends and family. I put the book down unable to see Picardie slip inexorably away. And I kept picking it up because I wanted to spend as much time with the author as I could. She touches the heart because she touches her truth and her friends and family were generous enough to share her with us. Thank you. Thank you to all of them. And thank you to my mother who gave me this book I should have read a long time ago.