Erica’s Cancer Journey: “What my dying looks like to me”

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The wobble in my voice is new. I sound shaky, frail. I have never heard this sound out of my mouth before. Does Beyoncé ever wake up like this? The next day, after increasingly desperate panting, I learn the term “air hunger.” Hospice arranges a delivery of oxygen. Me: “Um, I don’t know what size I need. Do you have a variety pack?”

I am suddenly coughing through my food, and especially drinks – like some of the flaps aren’t sealing properly. I rely on straws to prevent me from choking. My appetite nosedives, but my body makes the most of it: craves fresh produce or bone broth rather than pasta or spoonfuls of chocolate chip cookie dough.

Breathing becomes increasingly labored. We increase the air flow from 0 to 4. Such heavy equipment to process air. Personally, I appreciate that “canula” integrates seamlessly into our daily dialogue, as in, “CANU-la believe it?” or “Aren’t you my sweeeeeeeeeeet canula?” Random numbness. Urgent pee jags. Teeth that feel like they’re loosening into Shrek formation.


Is this it, I wonder?

by Mary Oliver

Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the Earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice. I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely. You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches
all day. You are breathing
patiently; it is a

beautiful sound. It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of
separation. And what does this have to do
with love, except

everything? Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame. Then it settles

to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.

Head On and Heart Strong!

Love, Erica

Kids’ Almanac columnist Erica Chase-Salerno was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in the Summer of 2015. To read more about her experience, visit

There are 3 comments

  1. Linda Gray

    Erica, I am so moved by your story, and thank you for sharing with eloquence and humor. I walked this road with my daughter and am now quickly approaching her 20th “Angelversary”. Her remarkable energy is with me still.
    Thanking you for your presence and sending a bit more love to add to the bounty I’m sure you have, and wishing you easy days. ❤️

  2. peter van aken

    A life lived as a journey, the last part shared in print and electronic form, with strangers like myself, and her close friends and family. I never met her, but I read her columns in the print edition of Almanac, and just now online. Bless you, Erica, for communicating your humor, your courage, your real struggle and your real spirit. May we ALL live our remaining lives “head on and hear strong”.

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