Living and Dying Well
One month ago today, I stood at mother’s bed as she died from cancer. The following is an adaption of words I shared two weeks later at her memorial. They were part of the combined eulogies by my two brothers (as sons) and my son Evan (representing the grandchildren).
Mom and I became quite close as we walked the cancer journey together. It wasn't until my brothers and Dad and I sat and reminisced after her passing that I realized how similar we were in many other ways.
EULOGY: LIVING AND DYING WELL
When you’re a child, you tend to see your parents for who they aren’t as much as for who they are. That was certainly the case for me. Throughout my childhood and teen years, Mom sought closeness with me that I, being similarly introverted and uniquely obstinate, refused to give.
While my brothers seemed to fit easily into the roles of devoted sons, I felt isolated and detached. She wanted me to confide in her while in my own mind, she really just wanted me do what she liked to do, like the music she liked, read the books she read.
As an adult, Mom’s role changed. First, she stepped naturally and authentically into the role of grandmother. Then, she became an ever-present caregiver and encourager during my two journeys with brain cancer. The first bout was in 2001, a month after the birth of our second son Evan. She visited our home in Fresno, California for weeks at a time to care for her sick son and her newborn grandson.
She was there at my side again during the recurrence of my brain tumor in 2015. It was at the tail end of my treatment, in 2016, that she told me about the pain in her hip – the pain that would eventually point toward metastasized lung cancer.
Cancer immediately became a bond no mother and son should have, a super-glue that no one would deliberately apply. Now, we suddenly “got” each other. It’s tragic that it took her terminal diagnosis to bring life to our relationship.
She told me the story of how, as a young girl, she watched her grandmother also face lung cancer. As her grandmother lay dying, young Marianne went home and prayed for several days in a row that God would not take her grandmother. And for several days in a row she watched her grandmother suffer, wishing to die. Finally, Marianne realized it was selfish to hold on. She asked God to take her grandmother and relieve her of her suffering. When Marianne got back to the bedside, her grandmother had passed peacefully.
Mom reminded me how, after my first cancer in Fresno, someone had told her, “The Devil got cheated this time.” Mom’s response (in her mind, not out loud) was, “We all die. Does that mean the Devil always beats God eventually?” The idea made no sense to her.
In short, Mom accepted her fate with peace. She had a calm and measured acceptance that death comes to everyone.
My favorite book of the bible has always been Ecclesiastes, because the author is unafraid to ask the hard questions about the meaning, and the meaninglessness, of life, saying:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to tear, and a time to sew.
Mom lived out the wisdom of this great book. She saw the last 6 months or 3 years or whatever time she was allotted as a gift she had no intention of squandering. Instead of wondering “What’s the point of it all?” she jumped head-first into life with a confidence she hadn’t had shown before.
You see, despite her many talents and the lives she touched, Mom often let the opinions and criticisms of others sabotage her self-image – even when those opinions and criticisms had not been expressed – and might not even exist.
As soon as she heard the word the words “Terminal Cancer,” that tendency all but went away. The impending end of her life seemed to give her the clarity that all those little hurts and slights people might have and give, well, they aren’t really that important. What’s important is your love for others and the concrete ways you show it, whether that’s through a jar of jam or showing up for the important events in their lives.
She was given a death sentence, but it didn’t mean she would stop living. For three years she kept gardening, and quilting, and hosting, and even traveling as her health allowed. Last spring, she talked of planting a smaller garden… and of course, it ended up a full, super-sized, Marianne Thiessen garden… which, as always, became a way to share nature’s goodness with friends and family. This past summer, even though her body was starting to give out and she was limited to using a walker, she still managed to take Rachelle and my boys raspberry-picking.
When we arrived from Spokane this Christmas, she told me, “I’m in terrible pain” – an uncharacteristic statement from a tough woman. The pain in her hips and pelvis had gotten so bad she could no longer go downstairs to her beloved quilting area. And yet, a day or two later, she was downstairs with her grandkids looking through quilts. Just because she couldn’t, didn’t actually mean she wouldn’t.
Mom started palliative home care a week before Christmas. During the first assessment in the living room, the nurse asked, “How do you handle anxiety about death?” And Mom said “I don’t get anxious.” Then the nurse said, “What do you do when you fear death?” And Mom said, “I don’t fear death. The only thing I fear is pain.”
Near the end of our visit at Christmas, as the pain became almost unbearable, Mom told me she wanted to die. We sat quietly together for a few minutes, silently sharing what didn’t need to be said. She had lived her life fully. She was ready, just as her grandmother had been ready.
Mom wasn’t one for certainties or hard answers. She wasn’t overly concerned with what would happen to her when life left her body. My brother Roger shared a few days after Mom died that she at one point mentioned she could imagine the possibility of reincarnation, commenting “it would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” with a twinkle in her eye.
She also wasn’t always as self-confident as we, the ones who loved her, thought she should be. But she taught me lessons most of us never learn, about living and dying well.
She taught me that you don’t have to have life all figured out to live it fully.
And she taught me that, Yes, you’re going to die. But that doesn’t mean that death wins.