This photo shows Marlene, one of Light Morning’s four co-founders, prepping tomatoes for canning on the porch of the old community shelter. She taught me how to work; I learned by watching her. Marlene’s hands moved at the same consistently fast yet careful pace, whether she was typing, cutting tomatoes, or bow-sawing firewood.
Marlene also deepened my understanding of what Light Morning half-humorously refers to as U.P.S. — Unresolved Parental Stuff. In a previous series of posts (here), she shares a harrowing tale of how primal childhood woundings leave scar tissue, which in turn causes us to re-create our unresolved trauma with other people and in other settings. How much of our trauma can be healed and how much will remain unresolved is an open question.
Finally, Marlene taught me about death and dying. The teaching was up close and personal, as Marlene chose to die at home, here at Light Morning. The following story (in three parts) charts her journey from receiving a diagnosis of terminal illness to taking her last breath. It’s based on a series of email updates I sent to Marlene’s far away family and her many friends. It’s also a story about the shadow dance between the acceptance and denial of death.
March 16th, 2018
As some of you may know, Marlene has been tormented by unrelenting pain for a couple of months, centered in her lower back and hips and radiating down her legs. It finally got so severe that she allowed Ron to call 9-1-1.
A Floyd County ambulance crew arrived at Light Morning to transport Marlene to Roanoke Memorial hospital. It was her first ride in an ambulance, and the first time she had ever been admitted to a hospital. This past week the doctors have taken x-rays, biopsies, and an MRI to determine the cause of her intolerable pain.
The results of the tests came in today and the diagnosis isn’t good. Marlene has stage four cancer. It’s lodged in her back, her lungs, and other organs in her body. Given her age, and how far the cancer has metastasized, the doctors say it can’t be treated. All they can do is prescribe medications to ease her pain.
After talking it over with Ron, Marlene says that she wants to “let nature take its course.” Please keep them both in your prayers.
March 21st, 2018
Yesterday afternoon Marlene returned home, transported by ambulance from Roanoke Memorial hospital. Her diagnosis of stage four cancer qualifies Marlene to receive hospice care from New River Valley Hospice.
Prior to her arrival, several of us had spent hours cleaning and preparing Ron and Marlene’s cabin — buying and filling storage tubs, bagging up trash, washing laundry, and picking up Marlene’s prescribed pain meds. We finished Monday evening, just in time for hospice to deliver a fully adjustable hospital bed.
The following afternoon I helped the ambulance crew navigate Marlene’s stretcher from the parking lot, through the field that she has walked and mowed so many times, and down to their cabin. Alta, a long-time friend who’s also an RN with New River Valley Hospice, was there to help Marlene get settled in. She had a comfortable night’s sleep. This morning there were several inches of snow on the ground.
Marlene’s three beloved cats happily welcomed her home. Ron now sleeps in a small cot in their living room, near Marlene’s hospital bed, where he can be her caregiver and keep the wood stove stoked. Their former bedroom in the loft has become a storage arena and Ron’s part-time job delivering Papa Johns pizzas has been put on hold.
Marlene doesn’t seem to realize that she’s dying. As far as she’s concerned, the hospital took care of her back pain and then released her to go home. It’s partly denial and partly her failing memory, perhaps aggravated by the metastasizing cancer.
Marlene is therefore living more in the moment. She seems alert and oriented, watches TV, tells me where to find her address book, and observes that the snow has covered the blooming daffodils.
In the hospital, Marlene said that she wanted to let nature take its course. So the same nature that gives us the stations of the day, the seasons of the year, and the stages of our lives will eventually take its course with Marlene, just as it will with the rest of us. And she and we will continue to respond, as best we can, to each new turning of that wheel.
March 26th, 2018
Many of you who live in the neighborhood have asked about visiting with Marlene. Here’s how I replied to an out of town friend who wants to spend time with her.
“Ron says that while Marlene is clearly familiar with me bringing something down and saying hi, she isn’t comfortable with people coming to visit. She’s only truly at ease with Ron and his sister Diane, who Marlene has known since Diane was a young girl. It’s hard for those who live down the road, have been close to Marlene for years, and now can’t visit her because of how she’s narrowing down.”
Marlene’s slow withdrawal of awareness and gradual disengaging feels natural for someone facing what she’s facing. I sometimes wonder how I would adapt to similar circumstances, should my time of dying come slowly rather than suddenly. There’s no way of knowing, prior to being there.
But for now, Ron’s assessment that Marlene can’t handle visitors needs to be honored. She still enjoys cards and letters, though, so keep those coming whenever you’re moved to do so.
The last of our recent 10″ snowfall is melting in the afternoon sun.
April 2nd, 2018
Marlene’s time seems to be drawing near. She likely has some number of days, rather than weeks, before she’s reclaimed by the mystery out of which we all come and to which we all return. As Bob Dylan once sang, “Every step of the way, we walk the line, your days are numbered, so are mine.”
There are many blessings to count. Foremost among them is that Marlene will navigate her final days at home — the home where she’s lived for so many years; where her three cats snuggle up beside and on top of her on the bed; and where she can be cared for by Ron, rather than by strangers in an institutional setting.
We have also been blessed by New River Valley Hospice – from the timely delivery of the hospital bed; to Alta helping Ron and Marlene ease into this last act of their shared life; to the essential meds that keep Marlene’s pain mostly at bay; and the ongoing visits by the RNs and nursing assistants. The hospice people have been wonderful.
Finally, there’s the mixed blessing of disengagement. This is partly due to Marlene’s increasing reliance on the gift of morphine, and partly because of the the natural re-focusing that happens as someone nears the end of the line. She’s progressively letting go of the few remaining ties she has to this life. She eats little, and drinks less. She no longer has any interest in her TV shows or in the mail that comes in.
Marlene still wants to see the mail, but barely glances at it before asking Ron to “put it on my desk.” And there it sits, a growing collection of caring gestures from those who know and love her.
Many thanks to all of you who wrote cards and letters. You can hold off sending any more and instead send your prayers, good wishes, and comforting thoughts to both of them.
Marlene apparently has little or no understanding of what hospice is. She seems to be completely unaware that she has terminal cancer and that her death draws near. This is hard on Ron, who’s fully aware of what’s happening but can’t process it with her.
“Why is she so resistant to it?!” he asked me the other day. Then his eyes teared up and he came over for a hug.
“Ronnie,” I said, “you and I have lived together and we’ve been close friends for 45 years. That’s far longer than the time that either of us has spent with any of our brothers. I’m thankful I can be here to share this with you.”
Seeing Ron trying to process Marlene’s denial helped me understand that I’ve been in denial, too. While working in the garden yesterday, I glanced over at Marlene’s permanent mulch section. Suddenly I realized that she would never again set foot in the garden; never again enjoy the perennial flowers she planted and lovingly tended over the years; never again taste a ripe Blue Beech tomato right off the vine.
I choked up, my conscious knowing that she’s dying giving way to a more visceral grief.
New River Valley Hospice provides a small pamphlet for the families of those facing death. Ron has read it several times. On the last page is something that Annie Dillard once wrote: “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.”
This three-part series of posts will continue next week.