By CAT WHEELER

In contemporary western culture we can talk about anything. Sex, drugs, sex on the rug with drugs, PMS, bizarre fantasies, snoring … anything goes. Except that last taboo, the subject most people decline to acknowledge at all: our own mortality.

Death is the last taboo in our culture. Most people don’t want to think about it, talk about it or prepare for it. But popping our clogs, falling off the perch, passing over or whatever you call it at your house, death is not optional. Fenced into a dark corner of our daily lives, we decline to engage it. So when it slips through that fence and manifests in our lives we have no tools, no terms of reference to deal with it.

One day it comes and sits beside us and will not go away. We have to acknowledge it then, and learn to walk with it.

Is it my imagination or does my little expat community in the Indonesian island of Bali have an unusually high mortality rate? I’ve lost count of the friends and acquaintances who’ve checked out on my shift, mostly from cancer. I’ve shared that journey with some of them over the years, trying to provide whatever they needed — talking, listening, cooking, giving Reiki sessions or just holding the space for them.

Then, less than a year ago, my younger sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Some people do well with the major surgery that’s sometimes offered for this illness, and win years of good-quality life from it. Robin was not one of the lucky ones. Since the surgery in April she’d been in constant pain and unable to eat. I went to Canada in winter for the first time in more than two decades and spent a few days with Robin in her forest house on the B.C. coast before the whole family traveled up from the city for the holiday.

On Christmas Day Robin collapsed and we rushed her to the local hospital. She had a life-threatening infection and was evacuated by air immediately to the main hospital in the city. We followed by ferry the next day. The next two days in the Step-Down Unit were tense; nurses poured platelets and antibiotics into her veins until she was strong enough to have a life-saving procedure. Beth, my other sister, and I stayed with Robin constantly and over those two long nights she grew increasingly weak; we thought we would lose her then.

After the procedure she was moved to another room on the noisy, busy surgical floor. A constant stream of doctors, nurses and technicians interrupted her rest to poke more needles into her. Doctors began to talk about moving her to the Palliative Care Unit, but she resisted. The words palliative care bring dread to most patients and their families. This is the end of the line, no more pretending that things might change for the better, that there still might be a happy ending. Coming to terms with a move to the PCU means a major shift in our thinking.

But when Robin did agree to go, we found the best-kept secret in the hospital. Rather than being a place of darkness, the PCU was a wonderful haven of quiet and compassion. The rooms were private and bright. Patients were not bothered every four hours for their vital signs any more; as long as they had some, no one cared what the numbers were. Blood tests became infrequent. Whenever possible, IV lines were removed. The nurses had time to sit and chat.

Ironically, there’s a lot of competition to work on this floor “because there is so much love here,” as one nurse told me. The bottom line in the PCU was keeping patients comfortable, and that meant all the morphine they needed, whenever they asked for it. Visitors were welcome 24/7 and if they brought well-behaved pets and a bottle of wine, so much the better.

Beth and I took turns staying in Robin’s room with her, sleeping on a cot by her side, trying to tempt her to eat, talking quietly in the middle of dark night, sharing tears and laughter, holding the space. As two weeks went by we filled the room with books and flowers and food and our own energy. It became a sanctuary within a sanctuary, a place of deep intimacy.

There was a lot of turnover on that floor, of course, and when we heard the gurneys pass the door to pick up the shells of people who no longer needed them, we made dark jokes. It helped.

There were nights when Robin spent hours kneeling beside the bed with her head on the mattress because it was the only position that offered relief from the pain. I would go to the nursing station to ask for more morphine for her, and the nurse would give me a hard, brief hug before going off to fill up the syringe. It is so hard to watch a loved one suffer, and I talked to people on that floor who had been nursing their husbands and wives for two or three years. How do they do it? After three weeks Beth and I were physically and emotionally exhausted.

The PCU was the place between – a safe, respectful, comfortable place of transition where patients and their families and friends could come to terms with their new reality. It made me think how ironic is was that people had to get this sick to escape from the noise and chaos of the rest of the hospital and come to this peaceful haven, this secret floor that no one knew about unless they had a loved one there.

And it made me think of how we save things up, put things aside for later, thinking that there will always be plenty of time. As John Lennon observed, life is what happens when we’re making other plans. The last few weeks have been a lesson in cherishing. Treasure your health and your loved ones. Time is precious. We should hug people often and tell them we love them, spend our love instead of saving it. Love earns a lot more interest when it’s out in the world.

Robin has been transferred to a hospice in her town of Sechelt now where she is tenderly cared for by nurses who have often walked with death. Beth and I are with her every day. This journey is not over. But we have learned to cherish every step of it.

Cat Wheeler is a Canadian writer who lives in Bali, Indonesia.