On December 6, 2016 one of the people I have loved most in my life returned home to God at the age of 54 after a fourteen year journey with Stage 4 Breast Cancer. I was privileged to spend her final days by her bedside with her family. Mary and I had a glass of wine together on Thanksgiving Day and a week later her doctor told her there were no effective treatments available to help her live any longer. After fourteen years, she went from that glass of wine to hospice within a week.
Mary remains one of the best friends, one of the best laughs, one of the purest connections I have known in my life. And for the record, I've had a lot of friends, a lot of laughs and a lot of pure connections in my life.
But this blog is not about Mary's death. This blog is about the way she lived, and how the way she lived is helping all of us to live without her. I am telling this story because I know it will help anyone given a life threatening diagnosis. It will give those who are healthy a valuable perspective on how to live. It will give families that are grieving an understanding of what the invisible force is that is sustaining them when they do not feel it is possible to be sustained.
In 2002 when Mary had three small children and was given a diagnosis of Stage 4 Breast Cancer, she turned to her Uncle Larry, a Catholic Priest, for guidance. The story of the conversation with Father Larry goes like this:
"Father Larry, I've been given this diagnosis and I'm afraid. My kids are so young and I don't know what to do. I want to live a long life and stay here with everyone. What can I do Father Larry?"
The words Father Larry gave her that day fourteen years ago were the words that I referenced as she lay in the bed looking at me during her last week of life.
Father Larry had said to her "Mary, it's not so much about how long you live. I know you want to live to see your children grow up, but the truth is that we have no control over that. But what I wish for you, Mary, is to have the fullness of life. Be humble, be kind, and live the fullness of life, dear Mary"
Andrew and Mary with Father Larry on their wedding day September, 1989
And so over the years, we would talk about this, about mentally staying out of the parts of life she had no control over and focusing on the fullness of life that was within her reach. Things like telling people she loved them. Being kind and helpful. To laugh... often and hysterically even in the face of a nightmare. To attend her children's sporting events whenever possible. To participate in Heartworks even when it was from bed. To create deep and lasting friendships that will prevail regardless of how long she lived because they are based on how she lived instead. These words from Father Larry helped her to appreciate every glass of wine, every meal she got to cook for her family, every party, every night in, every celebration and milestone. She lived it all as fully as she could.
So when she was coming to terms with the fact that her life was ending (this happened along with comments like "This is so bizarre Megan, I'm going to see God in a few days") Father Larry's words became my response to all her concerns.
"Do the kids have dinner tonight, Megan?"
"Yes Mary, the fullness of your life is taking care of dinner tonight"
"I don't want to miss Teddy and Maddy's graduations"
"I know Mary, but the fullness of your life will be there"
"I don't want Drew to have to miss work to come home"
" I know, but the fullness of your life will figure all that out for Drew"
"What's Andrew going to do without me?"
"The fullness of your life will take care of him"
"I don't want to leave yet, I want to stay"
"I know Mary, (sob, sob, sob) but listen to me....you will never be gone. You've lived the fullness of life, so there are enough friends and family to support the kids and Andrew. There are enough fun memories to last all of our lifetimes. The fullness of the stories and the laughs will sustain us all. You have created enough love, friendships, connections and support to last long after your physical body gives out, Mary."
And with each answer she would simply nod her head, and say "Ok, I'm going to trust in that". Then she would close her eyes and rest.
I witnessed the fullness of her life fill in the impossible emptiness of that final week and the weeks that have followed. It is the fullness of her life that shows up everyday, in one way or another for her kids and husband, for her siblings and extended family and friends. The fullness of her life shows up... sometimes in the form of a lasagna, sometimes in the form of a phone call or note left in the mailbox. It shows up in laughs and stories and in the plans her children are making for their futures. This is how I know the fullness of our lives out lives our physical bodies. I know this because I am witness to it. I will get to be a part of the fullness this week when I meet Mary's bestie for lunch. We will sit over lunch (and wine) and laugh and cry and live in the fullness of Mary's life.
It has been 64 days since we last heard Mary's voice. Everyone who loves her is walking through winter with hearts broken open. And the only thing that can effectively fill a broken, open heart is to continue living the fullness of life she created in spite of the ending of a life we never wanted to end.
Thank you Mary for living in such a way that we get to live in the fullness you have left us. Thank you Father Larry for offering words all those years ago that I was able to use with her when no other human words made sense.
This picture of Father Larry sits on Mary's bookcase.
So for 2017 my wish for every human being is that you live the fullness of your life. My hope is that by focusing on this, in whatever situation you find yourself in, you are brought to a level of unexpected peace and certainty that the fullness of our lives plays a role much bigger than the space our physical body occupies. The fullness of the relationships and connections we create in this lifetime is what will help us in our final days and will help all the people we love that are left behind.
Cheers, Mary. We will love you and miss you forever.