I spent the weekend watching my partner’s aunt in her last days of life. Maricela Ochoa passed on this morning around 5 a.m. after a five-year fight with breast cancer. She was 48. I knew her as cool Tia Mari, the actress, the activist, the 5’3″ spitfire with a voice the size of her native Texas, the woman who outlived her doctor’s dead-end timeline by over two years.
Sometime around midnight on Saturday, it began to piss me off that NFL players wear pink gloves and shoes, that the cable music channel displays a pink ribbon, that you can buy all kinds of things in powder pink to make a statement. I was standing in the living room at the head of Mari’s hospital bed, looking at the fissure lines on her skull that showed beneath her dark fuzz of hair. For hours she made choked, drowning sounds; the sound of barely not suffocating, of having a 5’3″ body full of malfunctioning organs. Her skin was faintly greenish-purple, as if the light around her bed were distorted. She had not eaten or had water in four days; and her mouth–with its trim, exact lips and perfect teeth–hung open. I wondered about the lines she had spoken onstage and before cameras, the slogans she chanted in antiwar protests, the countless times her mouth opened and closed in her life to give shape to the billowing ribbons of opinion, feeling, and confession that run through us all.
Whereas pink ribbons have absolutely nothing to do with cancer. Just like yellow ribbons haven’t got a damn thing to do with our kids who die in the desert; nor does the flag pin, that glorified tie tack, do enough to stop our elected leaders from sending them there. Not all symbols are created equal. I believe Tia Mari would agree with me that there is neither a factory nor a product designer in the world that can manufacture a symbol that makes us feel, in our very bones and tissues, how fragile we are. How fragile all of us are, and that our body’s inevitable termination demands the most constant and careful self-questioning about what it means to be brave, to have compassion, and exist as much as possible in a state worthwhile to other people.
I learned to write in a school that advises writers to tell every story as if to a dying person. More than ever, today I try to imagine dying: Like everybody else, I can’t take my body. I can’t take symbols. I have to go without language, my life’s biggest asset and biggest crutch. What matters then? If I am to be a victim of cancer, or some other awful and average killer, what matters is that the people whom I loved know precisely how much I loved them. That my wife is OK. That I spent enough of my time doing things that made me feel excited or passionate or humbled; that a few of those things give my family a feeling of vicarious pride. All good storytelling requires empathy of both the teller and the listener, so in my last days of life I hope I can still listen to a story. I want that story to be so colorful, so specific, so powerful, and so meaningful that I can’t tell the difference between its life and mine.
Cancer is a way that living things die–people, dogs, mice. It is a natural killer. Cancer dollars will never buy a satisfactory cure, because who is ever ready to leave? It is hard enough to smile for the dying. It is like trying to lift a house. I imagine Mari must have understood better than anyone that life is no rehearsal, and we need the most colorful, specific, powerful, and yes, meaningful, memories to relive when we are too weak and too medicated to open our eyes again.
Congrats, Mari. Your life is big. I wish I could have seen you act in your favorite play, but I’m a better person for at least having heard your voice, some of the strong things you said with it, and seen you just last week singing and dancing to spite your cancer. I think it’s awesome that less than a month ago you were in a Huffington Post article, and you yourself said, “We’re living. We’re human beings. We’re not just a little pink ribbon.”