Even as she was fighting her loosing battle with cancer, my friend Marie was learning and applying a ruler that helped her affirm life.
As she did this, she also taught me the importance of friends in such circumstances.
It’s normal and natural for a person to feel wary about visiting with friends or loved ones who are visiting with friends or loved ones who are seriously ill. But it isn’t wise. Those who are sick really need comfort and companionship. And we need the insights we get and the powerful examples of their courage and tenacity.
So it was with Marie. I gave her the company and continuation of our 40-plus years of friendship. She gave me the inspiration of her brave struggle. I want to share highlights of some of my visits with Marie, most of which were during the last half year of her life. Some of the visits were by telephone, others were in her small cottage in Holland, Ml.
As I walked the path to Marie’s cottage in the spring of 1993, I couldn’t help noticing the beautiful flowers in her yard.
She was leaning against the doorpost, talking on the telephone. Her thin frame, jutting cheekbones and drawn face were evidence of the cancer that had been ravaging her body.
“Come right in,” she said. “I’m talking to Mike.”
I found myself a chair in her cozy living room. Glancing around I noticed pictures of her children and thelr families neatly arranged on the piano. A California scene where son Mike and daughter-in-law Jodie live was on the wall. There was also a wind-chime which came from Guam where her daughter Pam and husband Randy live. Randy is a navy doctor. On the coffee table was Dr. Campbell’s book: Living with Cancer.
Marie joined me.
“That was Mike; he is so faithful about calling me. It’s so great to see you. It seems like all I do is visit my doctor for checkups, and my Taxol treatments.”
We chatted about friends from our nursing days, rarely focusing on her present needs. She seemed to want it that way.
“You just need to see my flowers,” she went on to say.
“I love gardening.”
As I drove the 25 miles back to my home, I reflected on the Marie I remembered from the past. She and I were classmates in a nursing program 40 years ago, living in the same dorm. We both married and had families. Her marriage ended in divorce after 19 years.
I recall the determination she showed when she was left to raise her five children, the struggle to find a job that would give her opportunity for family life, and the time she took to encourage her children in their studies and spiritual growth.
Her jobs were varied. Her responsibilities left her little time to spend with friends. Our lives gradually drifted apart. In January of 1987 my husband passed away; this changed the pattern of my life. I began to travel extensively.
In the spring of 1992, when I returned home from a vacation, I found that Lydia, Marie’s daughter, had left a message on my answering machine.
“Mom’s in the hospital; she’s had extensive surgery. She’s asking for you.”
Driving to the hospital I kept wondering: How will I find her? Will I find It dlfftcult to visit? As I entered the room she smiled wanly; it seemed like every imaginable tube was protruding from her body. It scared me to see her so invaded.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do with me next,” she said. We exchanged a few words. She was groggy and I kept my visit short. I prom·ised to see her soon. Marie’s daughter Pat left the room with me. “Mom has ovarian cancer and will need chemotherapy,” she said.
I promised Pat that I would stay in touch with her mom.
The following year Marie and I stayed m touch mainly by telephone. Her frequent treatments left little time for personal visits. After a year of chemotherapy was finished I received a call from Marie.
“I’m in remission,” she said, “and plan on visiting my family on the West Coast.”
She sounded excited. There had been little time for family visits until now. During her treatments she still babysat Tommy, Lydia’s boy, and was thrilled to do so. Also her abundance of flowers demonstrated her love for gardening.
When she returned from the west coast, Marie called me. It seemed like a regular call. She shared with me her visit with Mike and Jodie, her children, and other family members in California. Then she went on: “I’m at the hospital. I’m here for an overnight stay to receive a Taxol treatment. My remission didn’t last. Do you mind visiting for a while?”
I assured her I did not. Inbetween her treatments we’d try to squeeze in a visit. We decided by telephone when and where these visits would take place.
The Taxol treatments that Marie was to undergo were a newer type of treatment that promised more quality of life in between sessions. She was to undergo them at three week intervals. She was to receive a series of nine treatments in all. However, these treatments had many side effects, for which she received medication a day prior to treatment.
Marie also told me that these treatments were an option because ovarian cancer was so difficult to treat.
It was at this time that I realized that Marie needed someone to talk to while she was going through her valley. In time, these visits became very special to me also. Her courage and determination to live each day to the fullest as she went through these brutal treatments didn’t go unnoticed by those who were with her. She focused her thoughts on others rather than on her needs.
Our visits contained some highlights.
Once, when I stopped to pick Marie up for a visit to a local restaurant she looked well; yet she seemed pensive. I was soon to find out why.
“My doctor told me that my tests show that I need to stay on a Taxol maintenance treatment,” she said. “I wanted to enjoy some quality time with friends and family.”
But then she changed the subject abruptly and said: “Pam called. She wants to come and pick me up for a three-week visit to Guam. I would be spending Christmas there. I told my doctor. I believe he thinks me a wild-woman for even considering such a visit in my condition, but I sure would like to go.”
It hardly seemed possible that Marie, wearing her wig, her clothes hanging loosely around her thin frame, could make the trip. She was barely a hundred pounds now. My mind said; “Marie, this dream will not come about.” However, I was proved wrong.
When I returned from having Thanksgiving dinner with my children, I decided on a quick call to Marie. She was not far from my mind these days. In answer to my asking how she was, she said:
“I’ve been in all day, due to side effects of Taxol. My ears are burning and I’m nauseated. I declined my family’s dinner offer, but they did bring me a dinner all prepared.”
Then she went on. “I’ve been making angels; they are made of many strands of cotton. I brought two along for my doctor and nurse on my last visit to the clinic. Now I’m receiving calls from the nurses for more.”
She hung up after saying: “Thank you so much for calling; you’re such an inspiration.”
“And so are you,” I stammered.
I didn’t feel I had given that much encouragement; apparently it was enough for her to have me call and listen.
Marie was to make enough of these angels to decorate a small Christmas tree at the clinic where she had her checkups. She also gave me one which I cherish very much.
A few weeks later I received a call from Marie.
“I have permission from my doctor to go to Guam. Pam is making the necessary arrangements. Just thought you’d like to know. Randy can give me the injection that I need in between treatments.”
Our next visit took place at her cottage.
“You have to see my new clothes, and look at the new wig,” she said.
The excitement in her voice was catching.
“Marie, you’ve been through so much,” I said. “What keeps you going?” Then she shared with me her rules for living. She had them posted on her refrigerator. They read as follows:
“Hope reigns in my heart today.”
1. My illness doesn’t control me.
2. Daily I acknowledge the physical.
3. I must be positive in my mind.
4. I must transcend my emotions.
5. I must anchor in the spiritual.
6. God’s peace is my goal.
I was deeply touched, as I realized that I’d seen these rules practiced in Marie’s life.
My next visit was by postcard from Guam on December 28, 1993. It read as follows: “We arrived safely; the trip went well. I finally believe I’m here. It’s so peaceful and beautiful. I’m having my morning coffee overlooking the ocean. Haven’t gone out on the boat yet. Weather is great; don’t even need a sweater. Will tell you all about my venture when I get back.” Love, Marie.
Marie called me soon after her return from Guam.
“I even went scuba diving,” she said excitedly. “Was it ever beautiful down there. I’ll show you pictures on our next visit.”
Because of the wintery weather and bad road conditions, our next visit was canceled. I stayed in touch by telephone, but noticed in her voice that her illness was getting worse.
It was on March 5 that I saw Marie again. After I knocked, I walked in. I knew Marie was expecting me.
Marie approached me with some hesitation. She said:
“I was so sleepy after breakfast that I fell sound asleep on the couch! I can’t believe it’s 11:00 A.M. I do want to show you my pictures. I can hardly believe I made this trip. I enjoyed it so.”
Marie brought out her photo album with pictures of ocean scenes, scuba-diving that she took part in, and family get togethers. There were scenes of a daughter showing her ailing mother love.
“My Taxol treatment is no longer effective,” Marie said. “I can only eat a little, and when I do, the food just stays there. My energy level is so low.”
Then she went on: “Shall we go for the drive you suggested when you called?” We soon headed out to Lake Michigan, about a mile and a half from Marie’s cottage.
Marie’s spirits seemed to lift as we turned toward the beach on this sunny chilly day. As we walked, Marie commented on the fishermen casting their lure, and on the gentle lapping of the waves.
“Do you see the buds on the tree?” Marie said pensively. “I wonder if I’ll see my flowers bloom next spring?”
We sat for a brief moment on one of the benches that line the walk to the beach. “I’ve enjoyed this ride so much,” she said as we drove home. “It was good to get out. These visits lift me up.”
On driving home, I realized that Marie’s illness was finally taking its toll. I asked myself, “Why must she suffer so much?”
I knew that Marie would not feel that way. She maintained time and again that God was in control of her life.
At this time I also asked myself the question: Was it wise to take Marie in her weakened condition to the beach on a chilly day like this? For me the answer was, “Yes.” Her response had shown me that it was.
After this visit Marie seemed to lose ground rapidly. Often one of the family members would answer the phone.
Then one day my calls were no longer answered. I expected the worst. Next there was a message on my answering machine.
“Mom’s been taken to the hospital. She needed surgery to bring relief from her pain.”
I called the hospital. The nurse in charge of Marie’s case told me quite matter of factly, “Marie will not be returning home.”
As I headed for the hospital later in the day, I found it hard to believe that this might be my last visit with Marie. She had been so indomitable.
As I approached Marie’s bed, her ashen skin stood out against the blue hospital turban she was wearing. The curtain was drawn around her bed. It kept her roommate, a woman in her forties, from seeing her.
Marie chatted about hospital activities, her visitors and her children. Then she said, “My roommate hasn’t spoken to me at all, even though I’ve tried to converse with her several times.”
This obviously bothered her. As I kissed Marie good-bye, she said “They tell me I won’t go home again.”
I learned a few days later that Marie was staying with her daughter Pat and family in Howell, MI. A hospice nurse was in daily attendance.
I said a prayer of thanks for her. That was what she would have wanted.
I stayed in touch with Pat by telephone.
While conscious, Marie would audibly express her thoughts, some of which Pat shared with me. These are some of them: “Keep the faith. Teach your children.” “Poverty in life, but so rich in heaven.” Then on another day; “I see an angel a gate partially opening.” A while later, “Now the gate is opening wider. I see a bright light in the distance; I see many angels there.”
Pat shared with me Marie’s final words spoken after a restless night of struggle: “Thank you Father for coming.”
I felt a wave of relief as I put the telephone in the cradle, after hearing of Marie’s home-going. It was so fitting for her.
I felt I was the richer for having been a listener and encourager to Marie. She taught me that by giving of self, you receive in return.
Mrs. Trace Prins, a widow for eight years, graduated from Pine Rest School of Nursing in 1952. She enjoys the fellowship of her four children and their families who live near her. She is a member of Bethel Independent Church in Jenison, MI.