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Love at the Edge of Life

I met Rachel at a party and we fell right into a close connection. At the end of the evening, while discussing possible New Year's Eve plans, Rachel confessed she may not be up to going out. She explained, "For the past 2 years, I've been having fun with ovarian cancer."

For the 2 years before that, I'd been volunteering one day a week in a 28-bed hospice ward as part of my spiritual practice. I knew at once how serious Rachel's illness was, and I was sensitive to my own urge to run. But we really liked each other, and over the next two months, slowly and carefully, we fell in love.

Love at the Edge of Life

Many of my friends were dubious of my taking on the hard work and heartache obviously ahead. But when they got to know Rachel, they loved her too, and supported us loyally throughout the last year and a half of Rachel's life.

During the first several months of our relationship, Rachel underwent radiation for the third recurrence of cancer. We functioned well as patient and caregiver because we'd both had practice! This radical difference in our roles didn't hamper our relationship,though, because my time with the hospice had taught me to see the essential person inside the illness, and not to be afraid in the presence of suffering.

My family had long accepted my being a lesbian, and within a few hours of meeting Rachel, they also accepted her into the family enthusiastically.

Rachel often remarked, "I can't believe how lucky I am to meet you at this point in my life. I just wish I weren't at this point in my life." Despite the radiologist's pessimism, the treatments (or love) obliterated Rachel's mass. For over a year, all her tests were normal, and we were able to travel, garden and dance together. We built a foundation of trust and joy that enabled her to talk through her fears and grief, and to let me take care of her when, a year later, her fourth and final recurrence slowly crippled her.

Despite Rachel's disabilities, though, I never saw her as a sick person. She was always the witty, sensitive and vivacious woman who charmed me at that party. Just as she often said she wanted, I cared for her at home in the short six days when she was bedridden, and she died with no sign of fear or pain with her hand in mine, looking right into my eyes.

I think we were able to form such an intimate and trusting bond so quickly because we both knew how short, and precious, our time together was. Sometimes, now, I wonder if having a new love so close to the end of her short (41 years) life made it harder for Rachel to accept death. But my heart, my friends and my family all say it was obviously a love meant to be. And she died the way she always said she wanted to, surrounded by love.

When I asked my mother if she ever thought I was crazy to get involved with someone so sick, Mom said, "Why, don't you think the grief is worth all the happiness you had? It was obvious you two loved each other so much!"

The anniversary of Rachel's death was July 1, 1999. And as my mother said it would, my gratitude for the joy we shared now outweighs my grief. The difference between us now is the biggest of all -- life and death. But Rachel will always be the sweetest part of my life.





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