Just a few months ago, my friend Brenna and I were laying on opposite couches, dozing off for a nap in her living room when I hesitantly asked, "What do you regret in your life now that you know it is ending?". She was silent for a while, and my mind began synthesizing the answers I thought she would give me. I thought about the places she would never go, the jobs she would never have, that nobody would ever be lucky enough to call her 'mom'. At last, she broke the silence and responded: "Sometimes, I wish I had been a little sluttier." She had me rolling with laughter--seriously? That's what someone who is dying thinks about?
In retrospect, I realize that what Brenna did in that moment was interpret my question literally. She thought about the true definition of regret: “a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done,” then replied with something that might have made her time on earth a little spicier, had she chosen to do it. It turns out that the answers I had crafted in my head actually didn’t answer my own question very wisely—she was always tactful in humbling me like that. When I look back on that conversation, Brenna’s response is symbolic to me in that it reveals the way she listened deeply, her sense of humor, and how much she cherished being alive.
I only knew Brenna for four of the nine years she battled with cancer. I’ll never know just how much of her wisdom was intertwined with her diagnosis, but my gut tells me that most of her buoyancy came to be long before her body was introduced to this disease—by no means did she have to choose to live out her story in the way that she did.
The thing about being diagnosed with cancer at the age seventeen is that you think you’re going to beat it—in fact, most people do—but Brenna’s cancer came back time and time again. As unfair as she recognized it to be, Brenna didn’t let this break her. She studied abroad in France and moved to California to be a full-time, unpaid intern while going through chemo. She went to music festivals, explored the Pacific Northwest, and shaved her patchy hair into a mohawk. When she was limited by ordinary, healthy-people-living-in-the-first-world life barriers, like struggling to find a job in the nonprofit sector after graduating from college, she waitressed and worked in swanky hotels so that she could have the means to play and travel in her free time, and she never apologized for it. A typical conversation with Brenna after a trip would go a little something like “well, I’ve been in the hospital with pneumonia since I got back, but the nurses here are angels and the trip was absolutely incredible”. It became the norm to watch Brenna suffer tremendously to do things that I am able to do without so much as getting a headache. Her optimism and gratitude made it easy for people like me to forget that she was constantly fighting for her life.
After her second stem cell transplant—a procedure that left Brenna bedridden for a year thereafter, both times—Brenna developed GVHD, a chronic side effect I distinctly remember her fearing before she opted to go through with the transplant. Her skin became sensitive and fragile, she developed cataracts and arthritis, and pain became a constant in her life. At twenty-five, her mind and body were at odds with one another, yet she opted to remain patient with herself. After all, she was still alive.
Brenna lived in the present. She told stories in great detail, she ate meals with immense pleasure and intention, she could describe each layer of color in a sunrise in such a way that you felt like you experienced it yourself. She said ‘yes’ to everything that made her feel alive. When we were roommates four years ago, she and I would drink wine recklessly, blast our favorite songs and laugh about everything under the sun. We drove to Yosemite National Park on a whim, where we hiked at Brenna’s pace and slept under the stars. There, she dominated every card game and secretly left some of her medically-prescribed marijuana behind for a man spending the holiday there alone (Brenna’s thoughtful and spontaneous nature lent themselves to many surprises—kind, silly, and apparently, at times, illegal).
It was never about lack for Brenna. In the same way that she didn’t choose to characterize 'regret' with opportunities she was not given, she always made the best of what she had. After years of radiation, her body would never again look, feel, or allow her to do all the things it once had, but she could still find joy through other outlets and continue to show up for others. The last time I saw her, she explained that while she had always felt a void for romantic love, she realized in her final months that her friends and family were her soulmates—that they always had been.
Strange as it may sound, the fact that Brenna had cancer for so long made it feel less to me like she was dying and more like ‘Cancer’ was just a shiny accessory she carried around with her. Rather than burst into tears when I heard the news, I just froze—I’m still frozen now, on a plane to Texas for her memorial. It’s as if I thought my best friends were exempt from dying, even when they’re carrying around a doctor’s note with an expiration date.
The thing about “someone who is dying” is that we’re all someone who is dying. Everyone you love is going to die and so are you, we just don’t know when or in what order. The distinction here is simply that Brenna lived with constant reminders of that and chose to live her life accordingly. My heart and the hearts of Brenna’s soulmates will break time and time again over this tremendous loss, but there’s a reason we are all gathering for a Celebration of Life tomorrow and not a funeral, which is that Brenna lived and loved with every ounce of what she had. For twenty-six precious years, she fought like hell to soak up all the good in the world and make an impact on the lives of those she cared about, and here we are: united by Brenna’s everlasting love, and equipped with all the tools we need to live lives as meaningful as hers.