I watch myself, outside myself. I sit at my cluttered desk. I engage in avoidant behaviors: online shopping for unnecessary things; arranging the perfumed, lovely lilacs from our yard; chatting with a friend I haven’t talked to in forever. These actions are all to avoid today’s topic: the terminal diagnosis of one of my dear friends, Donna Falls. She has started hospice as I write this.
We missed Donna earlier this year when she went on a several-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, arranged by the Transformational Journeys program at All Saints Church (ASC). Ken and I know Donna because we’re all ardent ASC Coventry choir members; Donna is my alto section seat buddy. We laugh, share pencils, get lost together, chat on the sly and harmonize. If we’d been in 5th grade together, we would have been regularly sent to the principal’s office.
The first indication of something wrong with Donna was severe pain, which at the time was blamed on a UTI she must have contracted during the Vietnamese trip. Her choir family didn’t know anything was amiss until those of us who streamed or attended that week’s ASC Sunday service heard Donna’s name in the “Please pray for…” section. We immediately called Donna, who delivered the terrible news and reason for the prayer request: her UTI had disguised advanced pancreatic cancer that had already spread.
Initially, Donna thought she should spend whatever time she had left by moving to Florida to be with her daughter, Catherine Story. Donna’s choir family — because family is what we are — had a hard time with that plan. The doctors agreed that Florida wasn’t a good idea. Instead, Catherine and Donna’s granddaughter Hillary are with Donna in Monrovia to help her for now … and where we can bring her soup.
Donna was in too much pain to attend choir practice last Thursday when the senior rector of ASC, Mike Kinman, spoke to us. As a country and community, we have experienced so much loss. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like for Reverend Kinman, who is the terminus of so much bad news and raw human life and death experience. That’s his job. Thanks to Mike, we all had the opportunity to weep openly. Our trusted and beloved in delicate matters choirmate, Matt Berkley, shared that he’d visited Donna to discuss which pieces of music she wants at her memorial. I can’t even write that sentence without getting choked up. Whatever the music, I’ll need it in advance to practice crying through it. Singing with each other is the most comforting thing I can imagine.
In the past couple of years, I have experienced loss on a personal level. For example, I lost my eldest sister Alane. I was convinced I couldn’t live without her, and I’m still here. I discovered the body of one of our besties when she didn’t show up for our standing Monday-night meal. I’ve lived through an excruciating 12-year cancer battle that my late niece Ann de Paolo fought with all her might. These were all difficult, but knowing that someone I adore is about to exit is, in some ways, even more so. I suspect many of us feel this way: how do we confront knowing that this person we love only has a rapidly decreasing amount of time left with us?
Some people start to act weird or go on the lam when dealing with terminal friends and loved ones. There are also people with terminal diagnoses that hide out, who have had it up to their eyebrows with unsolicited advice. “Have you tried…?” or “My auntie Bertha died of that, too!” These Helpy McHelpersons are so tone-deaf that they chase their loved ones away, who need support, not advice. Thankfully, Donna is so well-loved in the ASC community that she already has a support team running interference. We now contact Donna’s friend (and ASC stalwart) Erica Tamblyn and/or hospice help before we take soup over or, as we did yesterday, a smorgasbord of edibles for Donna to try.
When we visited yesterday, Donna was thankfully still Donna with her darling, sparkling eyes, warm smile and best hugs. Gracious, funny, kind, with just the right scintilla of silly. I came dangerously close to holding her hand too much. I also knew she was too nice to kick us out, so I kicked us out before we wore her out.
The late great poet Mary Oliver is eloquent about nature and the brevity of life. Here’s an excerpt of the last three stanzas from her poem, “When Death Comes.”
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
When Donna’s time comes, I will mourn her as I pretend she’s on another very long visit to Vietnam, a place she adored.
2023 marks the 30th year that Ellen Snortland has written this column. She also teaches creative writing online and can be reached at email@example.com. Her award-winning film “Beauty Bites Beast” is available for download or streaming at vimeo.com/ondemand/beautybitesbeast.