Losing Henni


PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.

GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.

PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?

GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

PIPPIN: Well, that isn’t so bad.

GANDALF: No. No, it isn’t.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Henni was a teaching colleague with whom I carpooled. We travelled back and forth to work, often dissolving into gales of laughter at recollections of teaching plans gone awry. As an art teacher and a yoga instructor, Henni had an eye for beauty. She loved life freely and deeply, and her joy was infectious.

Our paths eventually parted as I changed schools, and we grew apart.

It was breast cancer that brought us back together. While I was finally forced onto medical leave a few years into remission, Henni’s cancer had returned. It was terminal, having settled into her spinal column and rib cage. I visited her, chatting comfortably over tea. The smile on my face plastered over the pain in my body, but it didn’t fool Henni. She insisted that I accompany her to the pain clinic at the hospital cancer ward. I agreed, reluctantly.

Days later, I found myself sitting in a small room, listening to a “pain specialist” describe the likely progression of her disease, and the tools at his disposal to ensure Henni’s suffering was a minimal affair. While we were sitting there, I experienced the sensation of a great chasm separating Henni and I. Our commonality dissipated as I understood in a more visceral way that Henni was going to die.  My heart cracked anew.

She turned to me, as the doctor left to take a phone call, and said something that would change the direction of my recovery: “I don’t want to go to my death, drugged out of my mind.” I understood immediately that she was telling me she wanted to be awake and present in the remaining time she had, rather than in a stupor. Pain or no pain, Henni wanted to live fully to her very last breath.

Henni also had other things she wanted to tell me – burdens that a cancer experience creates, that can only be shed in conversation with a fellow cancer patient. Her eyes betrayed her own fears and worries about the upcoming battle. She needed a confidante, but there was no time that day. So we made that inane promise to “do coffee” sometime soon.

But we never did. I never had another private conversation with Henni again. When we were together, it was in a group of women that had gathered as a community to support Henni. Sometimes it was in a yoga class. Or in a sushi class. These were times of laughter, building memories and loving Henni. I knew that I needed to follow up with her, to invite her to that shared space where I could provide a listening ear, a safe place for her to let out those vulnerabilities and fears.

But I couldn’t find the courage because my own guilt and pain drowned my compassion. My very soul ached when I looked into the eyes of her children and considered that they would face life without the sound of their mother’s laughter, and her loving hand, to guide them. 

 And then, suddenly, she was gone, long before any of us were ready to let her go.

The loss of Henni left a mark on me. In her death, she showed me how to live – but I would never be the same. A wound opened up deep in my being: as I grappled with my sometimes reluctant embrace of life, Henni had fought hard for each moment granted her. In the end, I had no idea why I had been spared, and she had not.

I owe Henni a great deal: her determination to face her own death, eyes wide open, without the meddling influence of pharmaceuticals (for as long as she possibly could tolerate the pain) ignited a determination inside me to get up and live. Henni would not have the opportunity to raise her young boys into the men she dreamed they’d become, or to fulfill all the creative potential she embodied. If she was going to be denied these things, then the least I could do was get off the couch, to find tools that enabled me to be awake in my own life. As I watched Henni’s bright light fade with the advancing disease, I began to take control of my healthcare: I embraced CBD oil, and looked for a yoga studio to help me rebuild. In the end, I truly believe that it was Henni, watching from “a far green country under a swift sunrise” that led me to Breathe into Motion Yoga Studios.


Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash

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