Modeling how to die

My remarkable friend Mary died yesterday, after showing us how to do it. Not when, mind you, because she was far too young and energetic, just how. How to question and oppose, to look at options, and eventually to accept the fact that life is fine and finite and go with grace into whatever lies ahead.

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer barely a year ago, Mary began what would be a studied exploration of traditional and alternative interventions to see if she might wrangle some extra quality time on the planet she had carefully nurtured throughout her life. Almost as importantly – most importantly to her host of concerned friends – she and her husband Tom signed up on CaringBridge. Immediately, her host of friends also signed on, forming a sort of cybercircle around the family.

As the journey progressed, they would post pictures and notes about their travels and travails, filled with exuberant photos, irrepressible humor and a clear-eyed view of our shared mortality. Friends and relations would sign in with their own comments. Sometimes the latter would include off-beat ideas for something else to fling in the face of the disease; more often they would be notes about how Mary and Tom were brought spiritually into other circles when they couldn’t be physically present. Sometimes they would be long and rambling; more often they would be simple affirmations of how the couple and their family were being held close in so many hearts.

It was an extraordinary gathering. With their three grown children and a few others on site, there was relatively little taking-of-casseroles over these months, though Mary was always the first to show up with a giant jug of homemade chicken soup whenever some affliction struck at my house (and many others.) The cybercircle kept us regularly informed, assured us that we were part of the journey, and served, I believe, as a constant reminder to Mary and Tom that dozens and dozens of their friends were at their virtual side along the way. It helped that both of the central characters – and they were central characters in all the best senses – were thoughtful and eloquent writers.

While preparing for a new round of treatment, Mary and Tom learned that her tumors had returned with a vengeance. So instead of setting out for one adventure they settled in for another. Hospice was called in, their children gathered even closer. Postings in cyberspace documented the passage of those days, from occasional sunset walks into the nearby hills to readings of comments from friends, as Mary grew weaker, that might win what Tom described as the ultimate honor, “the coveted arched eyebrow.”

As she died, Mary’s family fluffed the pillows and “administered magic drops and potions, all of which helped only sort of.” Afterward, Tom opened the window as a friend had prompted, “to free her spirit, not that she needed any help from me” and hung their Revolutionary War era ‘Liberty’ flag out front. And sent a final note into cyberspace for the ever-expanding circle of friends: “All hail, Mary, so very, very full of grace.”

4 responses

  1. Dear FranMy Sarawak Methodist Church English Magazine Connection has requested for articles. I am wondering if we could be honoured by your contribution of this special article. Just a thought . I would like to share this special article of yours in print (where a magazine can reach in the inland most of Cambodia and Sarawak)Thanks for the sharing.I have just visited Mrs. Mary Hoover's grave in Perth (she died in 1962) when the late Dr. Ding had to consider new moves and repositioning. Mrs. Hoover was Dr. Ding's adopted mother.

  2. Dear Sarawakiana, How lovely to hear from you. You are more than welcome to reprint this article. Please do mention that it first appeared on my regular blog for True/Slant.com, http://www.trueslant.com/franjohns. (I get paid for that one!) And please also mention that I wrote the book "Dying Unafraid" which is still in print & available; it includes the story of Lillian Ding, who surely died unafraid. I occasionally see Lillian and Lik Kiu Ding's daughter Mary who must be named for Mary Hoover. Could you give me an e-mail address for yourself, so that perhaps the three of us could be in contact? My e-mail is fjohns33@mindspring.com. Peace and every good thing to you. Fran

  3. Dear FranI am really looking forward to be on email with you.Mine is yisawan@gmail.comWinnie's iswintiesm@gmail.comI shall immediately make a copy of your article and send to Winnie.You are very very kind indeed.my blog Sarawakiana@2 has the write ups on Mrs. M. Hoover. Perhaps Mary Ding might like to read it.I am a bit slow in writing about Dr. Ding as I have too much material to pour through at the moment. Perhaps I could buy your book on line. I will try that.My name is Yi and my family name is Chang. So people here call me Chang YiThanks so much. Shalom

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