My friend Ellen is dead, cremated, memorialized.
Ellen was my friend and colleague. She was also a mother, wife, daughter, sister, cousin, midwife, student, employer, client, mentor, QIVC member, MANA DOR Director of Database Development….the list goes on and on. Ellen was and still is important in the lives of many people. Ellen was and still is loved by many, many people. In the wake of Death, we grieve, we remember, and we each wonder how to go on.
How do you go on when you experience a huge loss?
How do you grieve and live at the same time?
How do you offer, and receive, condolence?
“Sorry for your loss” just doesn’t cut it.
The phrase is sweet, concerned, caring, and impotent.
For myself, I am carving out time for solitude, and time for community:
For solitude, there are early mornings alone in my bed, sunrise in the hot tub, cups of coffee by the wood stove…
For community, I continue to attend monthly midwifery gatherings, my semi-monthly LCM Mom & More group, and weekly Eucharist. Also, I am adding potlucks on Fridays with Ellen’s community of Friends, and Sunday dinners at my own farmhouse, the table carefully set for whomever arrives.
My friend Ellen saw Death coming from a long, long way off.
Death came to visit, tugging at her coattails, when Ellen was a mere 29 years old. Breast Cancer was diagnosed, excised, radiated, chemo’d and, thankfully, placed in remission.
During that time, Ellen celebrated her first wedding anniversary, gestated, birthed and nursed two beautiful children, became a childbirth educator, a doula, started an intentional community, and she developed the most important midwifery database in the world.
Later, after many, many years, Breast Cancer appeared in the other breast. Again it was excised, radiated, chemo’d, and remitted as Death brushed past.
An expert in time management, in just seven years, Ellen built a house, became a Certified Professional Midwife (CPM), created jewelry, attended graduate school with the goal of one day being a Certified Midwife (CM), she raised her children, planted gardens, loved her husband, she did midwifery research, and refined software and databases. She attended births, welcoming babies as they slipped from their strong mammas, took first breathes, nursed sweet milk. She also made some of the world’s best wild grape jelly.
Then, after seven years of remission, Death tugged again, letting us know he was close, so much closer this time: Cancer had metastasized to brain and lung and sternum. This time there was nothing to cut out but there were spots to zap with radiation. Again, her cancer (and the rest of her body) was carefully poisoned with chemotherapy. This time, in spite of excellent nutrition, Qigong, daily walks, lovely friends, supportive family, Death moved in, a very uninvited house guest.
And still there was time; Ellen lived over three years with the deadly qualifiers of “Stage 4”, and “Metastatic” to her diagnosis already ominous diagnosis of “Triple Negative Breast Cancer”, BRCA1.
Now it was time for creating and completing Ellen’s Bucket List. Included were trips to London, the French countryside, the Grand Canyon, and Old Montreal. Other things checked off her Bucket List were creating a roadside library box, getting a Ellen-designed railing installed, having sleepovers with midwives, and many visits with friends and family. Then there was one last dinner at the table, and one last moonlit night, holding hands with her sweetie on the porch.
At the age of 50 (a very, young and lovely, and other than having cancer, a very healthy 50), my friend Ellen took to her bed as Death took its sweet time. (When you start the actual physical process of dying as a basically healthy person, it takes a long, long time. And when you are Ellen, you do everything in your own casual, carefully studied, uniquely timed and exquisite way.)
In this last era, there was time to breathe in sunsets, to watch leaves changing into autumnal brilliance. There was time to see sheep and deer and heron and swallows. There was time to slow dance out of bed, pivot and turn, then dip into the steadfast wheelchair. There was time for grown-up lullabies, and “I love you’s”. There was time for sentences never finished and thoughts never spoken. There was time to hold hands, caress feet, decline and then accept a pedicure. There was time for breaths, so many good breaths. Mainly, as Death bid its time and Ellen’s body slowly died, there was time for Love fill the heart, the room, the house, then spill out and over the hillside, slipping into the waiting world.
Several months later, while holding her husband’s hand, Ellen simply took her last breath.
May all babies be born into loving hands