What does it feel like to be touched by death?

I’ve seen pictures of you after your diagnosis. 
The ones you used to keep to yourself.
Like scattered snapshots of a memory too old to reassemble, 
I have looked at them and tried to fill in the gaps.
I’ve searched your face in these pictures and pondered your internal dialogue.
An awkward observer, unsure if I should be seeing what I’m seeing.
Unsure if I should ask the questions I want to ask.

In one picture, you are triumphantly brandishing a lollipop loaded with weed in your hospital bed, the corners of your mouth curved upwards in a small smile. I’d seen you make that same smile a million times before. I wonder if it meant something different after your diagnosis.

In another, you are caught in the middle of a belly laugh, the light from a sun-soaked window catching the side of your patchy, bald head. As poison runs through your veins, your spirit seems somehow more alive, practically spilling out of the picture. Warm, daring, unapologetic and bright. Bold in the face of something unimaginable. I wonder if you felt as brave as you look in that moment.

There’s another picture of you, after you finished your treatments, standing against the sun. The camera is angled upwards at you so that you stand tall, larger than life. Your limbs look frail, too thin, and your eyebrows are gone. Your cheeks are hollowed out. In your hand you hold a bottle of champagne, and upon your face is a pair of aviators. You hold your head high. Simultaneously you seem fragile and unbreakable. Effortlessly cool, as if cancer was just another inconvenience along the way to wherever it is you’re going. I wonder if you have any idea where it is you’re going.

There is one picture that’s different from the others. You’re perched in a stairway at home, your gaze fixed beyond the scope of the camera, chin propped up against your hands. Your hair has grown back in curly, dark, and thick. Different than before. Your “chemo curls,” you call them. You have eyebrows again, and they are set low and solemn over your eyes. Your eyes somehow hold the weight of all you have experienced in a few short months. There is a sad wisdom about you, a silent power. I wonder if this is what happens when you face death square on and walk away with your life. 

Since these pictures were captured, I have shared parts of this road with you.

I have hugged you as you cried silently after you found out your right ovary was no longer viable.

I have watched you accomplish milestone after milestone and marveled at the fact that you ever had cancer at all.

I was with you the day before your second diagnosis, sharing in your excitement of being almost four years cancer free.

I have struggled with what to say after you told me you had cancer again.

I have sat beside you for hours as you rehearsed your speeches for cancer fundraisers, earnestly scribbling ideas in your journal and then practicing their delivery out loud.

Despite this, I often still feel like that silent observer,
Gazing into your world through a lens of frosted glass.
After all of this time,
I still have the same questions.
Only now I understand—
There just aren’t words to answer.

What does it feel like to be touched by death?
What does it feel like to keep on living?