Regular followers of this blog will know that my sister Maryanne was diagnosed with cancer back in 2012. She was given six months to live. She died peacefully in her home in Tacoma, Washington on Saturday, May 31st a full two years following her initial diagnosis.
If you've ever lost a loved one to cancer, you'll know that when death finally comes, it comes as a gentle friend, ending the indignity of an incapacitating and merciless illness. I grieve that my sister—my wonderful, goofy, creative, eccentric, loving, kind sister—is no longer in this world. But I rejoice that, although she is absent from the body, she is present with the Lord. The suffering is over. It is a time to mourn, but also a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:4b)
There is a full metric ton of memories I could unload on you about this life. I could go on and on about Maryanne's talent as a scenic artist, her Bohemian days living in Hell's Kitchen, her trek up Mount Snowden in Wales, and her myriad enthusiasms from figure skating to pro wrestling. But in this moment, all I really think proper to reflect on was her willingness to face the inevitable with a courage born from true faith in Jesus Christ.
When Maryanne was first diagnosed, one of her doctors—understanding the gravity of her illness—asked her if she wanted to talk about how much time she might have left in this world. Her answer was “no.”
Please understand, it was not that my sister was afraid of death. Rather, she chose to be truly alive in the time remaining to her.
She phoned me around Thanksgiving of last year and—never being one to mince words—asked, “Do you have any interest in seeing me while I'm still alive?” With the help of my daughter, who was living in Seattle at the time, I flew to the West Coast for a reunion. I hadn't seen Maryanne in years and I was rattled by her appearance. She was rail thin, and her hair, which had been sacrificed to radiation and chemo therapy, was wispy and gave her the look of a man with male pattern baldness. Nevertheless, her face looked strangely youthful. The skin was tight over the bones but clear and smooth for a woman of fifty-seven years of age. The only sign of her illness were some pouches under her eyes and a certain weary, far-away look. We greeted with an embrace, and I felt I hadn't been hugged so warmly in my adult life.
There is something poignant about spending time with someone whose time is so short. I found my sister, in spite of her physical condition, her familiar affable and slyly funny self. After sharing family news and getting caught up she insisted on treating me—with her 17 year-old son, Aled, in tow—to lunch at her favorite Thai restaurant. We headed off in her somewhat-the-worse-for-wear car with Maryanne in the driver's seat. The harmonic swing music of the Mills Brothers blared from the stereo. No one who saw the cheerful woman in the beret slapping her fingers on the steering wheel in time to the bouncy '40's tunes would ever guess she had less than six months left to live.
I credit my big sister with introducing me to the novels of Thomas Hardy and P. G Wodehouse, the songs of Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, and the art of modern dance. She also taught me how to ice skate. It was appropriate, therefore, that she enlighten me one more time by suggesting I order a Thai iced tea. As always, she was right. Thai iced tea is delicious.
On our way home, she related to me an unusually vivid dream she'd had just before her doctors declared there was nothing more they could do for her cancer. In this dream, she saw herself in heaven greeted by our father—who was reunited with the family dog of our childhood. I found this vision very comforting. I asked my sister if she was afraid of what was to come, and she told me, “no.”
Maryanne was always generous with her passions, one of which was the theater. She had once worked professionally as a scene painter, but life in Tacoma as a wife and mother had taken her a long way from her paint-splattered past. In her last months, however, she became determined to introduce her girlfriend Laurie to the live stage. She treated Laurie to a performance of The Nutcracker ballet, and later invited Laurie's son Charles to see a local civic light opera production of Man of La Mancha. I'm sure she created great memories for both of her friends who will cherish her generous spirit.
She also made one more attempt to express herself with her paintbrush. A small still life watercolor of an Easter lily against a cobalt blue background called simply “Easter Morning” became her church's bulletin cover for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection. How very appropriate.
As a good steward, Maryanne left this world with all her affairs in order for her son and husband. She and I spoke on the phone shortly after she had signed her DNR. True to her bizarre sense of humor, she began to sing her modified version of the third verse of the old Welsh hymn, “Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer:”
“When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Please do not resuscitate...”
For some, this may seem like black humor, but it put me in mind of this verse:
“Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” (Proverbs 31:25)
To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing in her life became her like the leaving of it. Her strength and dignity where both a blessing and a lesson to those who love her and are left behind.
“Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." (Proverbs 31:30)
Thanks for reading my friends, and for letting me share.