What will dying be like? It all depends.
I asked permission to post this letter written by Juanita Brown whose World Cafe model is an integral part of the work we do. She wrote back saying, ” I talked with my mom and she’s happy to have you use the letter if you think it can be of service to other families facing some of these same choices. ” With deep gratitude for their example and generosity I am sharing it here.
June 17, 2012 – Juanita’s letter
Hello dear friends,
Please forgive our not being in touch and our delays in responding to e-mails over this last period in our lives. David and I are in transition from California to our family farm in North Carolina, and are also in the midst of accompanying my 90 year old mom, Millie, on what she calls her “last big trip.”
I’m sitting in the bedroom of the little house that my dad built for her, watching the finches at the birdfeeders outside her window…. laughing at the squirrels and chipmunks that swoop down and swing like high dive trapeze artists, with two feet hanging onto the window screen and their little hands and mouse-like faces simultaneously hanging onto the feeder—all the while grabbing and gobbling the sunflower seeds as fast as they can before falling off completely….making us all giggle in amazement at their antics.
My mom discovered about 6 weeks ago that she was in the final stages of ovarian cancer—from which her mom, sister, and niece also died. She “respectfully declined” (a rebel to the end) the oncologist’s recommendation to have major abdominal surgery and 20 weeks of chemotherapy….choosing instead to come back to the farm under the care of Hospice and the beloved community of friends and neighbors who surround her here. We supported her decision and are deeply grateful for what has unfolded over these last weeks.
Our time together has been one of the most tender, humorous, and heartwarming of our lives. Close relatives have been visiting, local friends come by to hang out, delicious food and desserts arrive as if by magic, and our “moments with Millie” have been hysterically funny. Her indomitable spirit, keen intellect, and irreverent sense of humor in the midst of living with the physical changes she is undergoing have been astounding to all of us. We tell her she’s become a “lay down comic” and the Queen of Quips! Perhaps it’s that she’s finally feeling liberated of all worldly responsibilities and can now provide her satirical commentary on the ironies we all experience but rarely voice.
For example, when she initially got her oxygen tank hooked up—she said to the first person who came in—“Watch out, don’t smoke or light a match in here—I don’t want to be cremated before my time!”
A week or so later we had a mishap where the Life Alert people sent the sheriff’s department and an ambulance at 4AM to the farm by mistake. David and I were freaking out when we realized two police cars and an ambulance were parked in the driveway. We were rushing to put on our clothes as we ran out of our own house next door, terrified that something horrible had happened to Millie.
However, the police had arrived and knocked on her door first. She called out, invited them in, sat bolt upright in her bed with her oxygen tube on, held out her hand, bid them welcome, and said—Officers, are you coming to arrest me? What did I do? And, by the way, there’s a cup of coffee in the kitchen—and also, can you please shut the door so the snakes won’t come in! Ahhhh our intrepid and fearless Millie. We laughed about that incident for a week.
The Hospice team has been fantastic. The combination of their love and skill creates miracles. Millie is on round the clock care now, sleeping mostly but totally alert and lucid when she is awake. When she’s awake, we lie on her bed, snuggling together and sharing memories. Yesterday we listened to lullabies from her childhood, as well as to Pavarotti singing opera. We also enjoyed the Strauss waltzes that she and my dad loved dancing to together. Delicious!
We do not know if we have days or weeks now but it is clear she is actively on her final journey. It is a strange feeling to realize that David and I are now becoming the “elders” and will be carrying on the legacy of social commitment and local community engagement that my mom and dad embodied here. After so many years of large scale organizing on a global scale, it’s a joy for us to experience the intimacies of community lived with love and mutual support at the local level. We feel honored and blessed that we are being embraced so wholeheartedly by folks here….it’s truly humbling.