Heather rented a yellow Volkswagen beetle for the trip to the weeklong cancer retreat, a car she had always coveted and never bought for herself. She couldn’t justify a new car after her second diagnosis. After a five-hour flight from Toronto to Vancouver, and an hour and a half ferry ride to Vancouver Island, she drove three hours across the mountains to Tofino, a small surfing town on the Pacific coast. Heather hoped the retreat would help her find peace, having been told by her oncologist that she had little time left to live. Being a doctor herself, she understood her grim prognosis from widespread metastases secondary to breast cancer.
Heather stepped out of the car at the front door of the Lodge and burst into tears.
“I can’t believe I made it,” she said, as she blew her nose. “I need to be here more than I need anything else right now.”
Her wispy blond hair, thinned from months on chemotherapy, was carefully tucked behind her ears and her tired grey eyes told the story of her long journey: the arduous road trip on that particular cold, rainy day in mid-January, and the struggles of the past two years.
“Where’s the beach, and my ocean?” she asked.
Heather had always wanted to visit the west coast but given her busy medical practice, and the fact that her two kids played competitive sports in high school, there wasn’t much time for family vacations, let alone a solo pilgrimage.
I pointed to the narrow trailhead flanked by bright green salal and deer fern, which wound steeply downhill to a sandy beach.
“I can hear her,” Heather said about the low, intermittent rumble of waves crashing on the beach below. The winter surf was high.
“Perhaps it would be best to wait until morning,” I suggested. “Finding your way back up the trail in the dark might be tough, even with a flashlight.” I was concerned about Heather’s compromised lungs for the climb back. “Come on in and meet everyone. Dinner is almost ready.”
The smell of roast chicken greeted us as I pushed open the heavy wooden door into the warm, cozy lounge, with its floor to ceiling wood-burning fireplace, overstuffed couches, and picture windows on three sides of the room, overlooking the ocean.
After breakfast the next morning, I glanced out of the window and noticed four people on the beach far below and wondered if they were guests from the hotel nearby. Looking closer, I recognized Heather, and then Maria, followed by Susan and Betty. Despite the long days of travel, all four women had stayed up late the previous night, talking like old friends. They had much in common, including advanced cancer.
Two of the women wore bathing suits, one had on leggings and a sport’s top, and the fourth looked fully clothed other than her bare feet. It dawned on me slowly that four women with end-stage cancer, aged forty-two to fifty-five, were about to plunge into the white-capped waves of the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of January. Holding hands, the tiny cluster of women then began to run slowly down the wet sand towards the steely grey-black sea.
I quickly gathered up a few other staff members, including our retreat physician, grabbed a stack of towels, and rushed down the path to the beach. Off in the distance we could see four tiny heads appearing and disappearing between the waves of rolling surf. As we got closer to the water’s edge, we saw bobbing smiles and heard high-pitched squeals above the sound of the surf. After a few minutes, one by one, the women found solid sand beneath their feet, stood up shakily, and waded their shivering bodies slowly through the surf and back onto the beach.
“If you can tame your fear of that freezing, wild ocean, you can face anything at all,” Heather said, looking back over her shoulder at the sea. “I didn’t know until now, but I travelled almost 5,000 kilometres to do that.” She laughed as she held her cold wet palm to my cheek. “Not going in?” she asked.
“Not on your life,” I said, suddenly aware of my faux-pas.
Witnessing four women who knew they would die soon, immerse themselves in the vast winter sea changed me in some indescribable way. Since that day in 1998, and as the promise of my body’s impermanence settles in me, I remember those women and I say ‘Yes’ more often to a whim, and surprise myself by overcoming a fear with courage. During the brief moments when I wondered if the women might perish in the freezing cold of the plunge that day, it also struck me that those minutes of gleeful abandon to the ocean might possibly have been worth the risk of an untimely end.
Heather died ten weeks after the retreat and I always wondered if her wholehearted surrender to the ocean that day helped her in her last days, to let go with courage into the vast unknown we know as death. I truly hope so.