You cannot imagine what a relief it is to begin to speak about Sister Mary. All these years of keeping silent, at her request. All these years of her chronic, intermittent cancer as the elephant darkening our family’s living room.
She did not want to be known for her cancer. She wanted to live as a vibrant full human being. We did our best not to pay attention to her increasingly fail and bent structure, her wheezing, that right arm that hung white and limp as a dead fish. And during these final months, the oxygen apparatus that would follow her around, even in public. And even up until May of this year, she was able to “hold it together” enough to gift a final piano recital for her eight young students and their parents and friends in the home she shared with husband John. As you can imagine, the place was packed. Their tribute to Mary. (Before the cancer took hold, she had been training to be a concert pianist.)
For we all knew. We had known for years. That she was, in effect, dying, truly about to go out. But then she didn’t. She refused. She refused to even talk about the possibility! Mary wanted to live. How she “kept going” was legendary: with Red Bull and sugary foods, to spur the exhausted adrenals — all anathema to me, of course. As is the industrial medical apparatus that surrounded her from beginning to end. I would tell her, every time I saw her and noticed what she put in her body: “I would be dead by now if I ate the way you do.” She would look at me, unblinking. Daring me to stop her. No one could stop her, that incredible will, that powerful Scorpio underworld self that drove her to the heights of ecstasy and despair, I’m sure, though only her husband is privy to that secret life.
On the surface, with others, she was sweetness and light, and loved to have fun. An echo of this personality emerged during her final four hours on earth, to the astonishment of all her loved ones surrounding the bed in critical care area of the U. of W. hospital. Underneath, however, who knows? She craved privacy. Which is why we are all so surprised that her social self surfaced at the end. Again, intensely grateful, how she not only “pulled it together” one last time, she shone.
In the middle of her 63 years, she reminded me recently, she did have “15 good years.” Years when the mutations of cancer had not yet resurfaced. Here she is with her son Andrew, now a practicing oncologist, whose first child she did not live to see. She did live to see Andrew married, last March, again to everyone’s surprise and gratitude. (I recall hearing that the day before, she went in for some kind of special chemo to make sure she made it through the wedding and reception afterwards.)
Sharing those 15 good years as well, was her husband John, who was magnetized by her extraordinary aura when they were undergraduates at Seattle University, during her first chemotherapy treatments — and, after deeply considering his options, decided to stay, for better or for worse. Forever. John happens to be another Scorpio, equally powerful. Only another Scorpio could have ridden with her, the waves of death and rebirth that she was continually subject to, over the decades, one perilous decision after another, one anguished 911 call after another, one heroic attempt to keep her alive after another, all of them working! To our astonished gratefulness.
And yet of course, all that interference with nature’s course took its toll. Gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, often dramatically. The weight loss. The loss of energy. The kidneys barely functioning, and the lungs. That arm. Especially over the past few years.
Her whimsy, intense sensitivity, and unusual compassion for those who suffer are legendary. Sister Kathy sent this email out today:
Me? I’ve got a card that she sent a few months ago, out of the blue. It will grace her altar in my room. It still makes me laugh. This morning it makes me cry.
Remember, her right arm was useless, and she was right-handed. This is her left-hand scrawl.