In the Green Room

And I do choose life. Every day. I choose life in all its complexity; aware of its beauty, its pain, its hope, its fragility, its love. Life, I believe, is a gift of unimaginable proportions. I don’t know what the future holds – for me or the world – but I have faith in the extraordinary power of humanity. I am thankful that I can say this. I am full of love. I am full of hope. I choose life.         Clemency Burton-Hill

I recently heard a radio interview* with Clemency Burton-Hill who, in January of 2020, experienced a massive brain haemorrhage. This was her first broadcast interview since she was released from hospital. She spoke haltingly but eloquently and with great heart. I found myself deeply moved by everything she said.

‘Clemmie’ is originally from London but now lives in New York where she works as the creative director of classical music at New York Public Radio.

Apart from being enormously inspirational and utterly authentic, I was struck by something she said about her time at Mount Sinai Hospital. After having been in a coma for 17 days, Clemency describes being presented with a clear choice: she could leave or she could stay. This was not a choice offered by her medical team. It came from a place beyond time and space. Leaving/Dying, she was told, would be easy. It would be painless and mark the end of her suffering. Staying/Living would be much harder and more painful. Clemency Burton-Hill chose to stay. She chose Life over Death.

In 2017, I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for triple negative breast cancer. I was bald and weak and grateful to be spending Christmas with my husband and two daughters, my soon-to-be son in law and his family. I had the best Christmas Day: I joined the family on a walk, ate turkey, opened gifts and even had enough energy for games and a Christmas quiz. For those few wonderful hours, I forgot that I was sick. I forgot that, on December 27th I would be returning to the hospital for further treatment. In bed that night, I remembered. It felt painful to remember after I had forgotten. Since my diagnosis in July, I had thought a lot about death. I had feared it, denied it, believed those who told me that I was strong and would survive it. Then, at some point over the course of those weeks and months, I made peace with death. I developed a strong faith in the goodness of an after-life. I believed, and continue to believe, that one day I will be reunited with those I have loved and lost. Dying no longer seemed like the worst thing that could happen to me because life, even when it’s good, is not always easy.

But, on December 25th, 2017 what I remembered, alongside what I had forgotten, was that dying meant leaving my family. It meant being invisible in time and place, it meant not being there for the milestones in my daughters’ lives, it meant watching from afar as Dan grew old alone. I recognised that death might mark the end of my suffering but it would be the beginning of theirs. Unlike Clemency, I was not offered a choice but I suddenly understood that leaving/dying was the easier option and yes, Life is a gift of unimaginable proportions.

*Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, January 20th, 2021