~Steffi Biersdorff, M.A.
I had responded to the funeral home that I was available for the Taharah, a Jewish ritual for preparing a body for burial. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. It was February 2019, and I was tired mentally, and emotionally lost. Physically I was drained from the stitches across my stomach that were healing. I cloaked myself in my secret identity. Preparing to let the deceased know that I’m here for them even when it might not be convenient or easy for me.
My stomach is in knots; I was just diagnosed with a rare form of appendix cancer the day before, and the surgeon didn’t know if he got it all. It’s as if my soul had shattered, and I cannot put myself back together again. I felt like I had died; perhaps I should bury myself too. Even if you know what’s coming, you will never be prepared for how it feels.
I began my walk into this sacred space in the funeral home, and my normal ceased to exist. I was dancing with death as it led me to the next room. The ritual takes over; I stop, I listen. The tachrichim, the shrouds, are laid out. With my hands, heart, and attention, I dedicated this to the woman who laid on the embalming table before me. Perhaps my ancestors who have performed this ritual before were giving me the strength to face my mortality. Allowing me to sit with death, I’m humbled.
Like Pittsburgh sunsets and Oregon mid-afternoon rainstorms, my future was ripped from of me, unfairly, too soon. Will I ever have gray hair? Will I not have the opportunity to grow old? As I’m looking down at the deceased, I realize as she is, I too will be one day. I’m not scared of a wardrobe change; I’m afraid of time and being robbed of it.
I place my hand on hers, and the deceased is ice-cold. I’m now aware of my mortality. We performed the Taharah, the washing, and the dressing. We sing to her and place the lid over the Aron, the pinewood casket, preparing this woman who recently passed for burial. Then the older women sing the Shehecheyanu blessing to me as they celebrate my first Taharah. As they sang to me, I could feel death lingering over me, but I’m at peace now with my mortality.
I took a second by myself to stay with the deceased. It gave me time and space to mourn for all the people I never got a chance to grieve for, including my pre-cancer self. But this is only a chapter in my book, One that will forever be bookmarked, but I’m strong. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know that my story isn’t finished yet and I won’t go gently into that good night.
It’s been three years since my diagnosis of mucinous adenocarcinoma of the appendix, and I’m currently No Evidence of Disease (NED). Five years ago, I didn’t feel right. I was 26, working a full-time job, and attending graduate school. Despite presenting symptoms resembling colon cancer, doctors dismissed my concerns. Two years passed, and I continued feeling ill. Finally, a couple of weeks after graduating, I underwent exploratory surgery on Feb. 6, 2019. Doctors discovered my appendix was distended and contained about a 3-centimeter tumor. My appendix was inflamed and ready to rupture, resulting in an emergency removal.
I’m checked annually for possible stage 4/metastasis since we don’t know if we got it all. Had it ruptured, cancer inside of it would have spread throughout my peritoneum, resulting in a stage 4 diagnosis. I was warned that any recurrence would likely result in an “ugly outcome”. The surgeon estimated that within two weeks, it would’ve ruptured.
I was also diagnosed with Lynch Syndrome. This hereditary cancer syndrome increases one’s risk of colon cancer, endometrial cancer, and several other cancers. Having lynch syndrome requires numerous tests throughout the year to ensure no new signs of cancer development. The tests include colonoscopies, mammograms, breast MRIs, brain MRIs, kidney scans, and biopsies of my colon and uterus.
It can be overwhelming. As others have said, it is like living between two kingdoms: the kingdom of the sick and the kingdom of the healthy. People think there’s an ending to cancer, but people don’t know that you have to live essentially scan to scan. The clock restarts when one test finishes and I begin waiting for the next one. I feel like I’m living on borrowed time because I shouldn’t be here as my type of 1 in a million cancer is usually found when it is too late. As young adults, we think we will never die, but once you get diagnosed, there are before and afters.
After getting diagnosed with almost stage 4 cancer in 2019— just a few weeks after graduating with my Master’s degree, I wanted to throw in the towel and call it quits. I took many steps back in my career as cancer screenings, surgeries/procedures, and blood tests overtook my life. Truthfully, I was broken-hearted, angry, jealous, depressed, and grieving pre-cancer me. I was adjusting to what would be my new normal for the rest of my life and wondering if I’d ever be enough.
But I didn’t quit—and how beautiful things can be if you don’t give up.
One can now usually find me covered in dirt from head to toe on a tractor in the garden nursery while wearing a fanny pack full of my tools and snacks. I work with the living and the dead; I grow plants on a mass scale and, when needed, help people nearing death prepare emotionally and spiritually. I’ve never felt so alive and free.
A recent experience took me by surprise. While staring in the mirror, I noticed my first gray hair at 31 years old. That gray hair is a miracle, and I’m so grateful to be on this side of the ground. As I plant seeds into the soil, I am reminded of life’s miraculous nature. I think we are all living miracles. No one’s life is perfect. Being able to overcome the trials that show up in your life and take those failed dreams and make them into something that you can still be proud of is a miracle.
How lucky we are to be here. To be here in this moment, we can all be miracles to each other. Anyways, life is short; buy the plants!
Steffi Biersdorff is the Head Grower at Quality Gardens in Valencia, PA. She is also a Death Doula/ Death Midwife and is finishing up her post-graduate work to become a Registered Horticultural Therapist. She has her Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture and a Masters’s degree in Food Studies with a focus on food policy. When she isn’t working or studying, you can find her cooking something tasty in her kitchen with her fiance and their quirky cats Tormund and Poppy.