Vonnie, Queen of ETHOOL
Vonnie is lovely, with dark hair and dancing eyes. I refuse to use the past tense until long after she’s gone, which I know will be soon. It hurts to think about it. I can almost tiptoe up to the edge of that thought in my mind, but it makes me feel sad and tired and hopeless, so I won’t go there until I have to.
I can’t remember when I first met her, but it was surely at least half a lifetime ago. It feels like I’ve always known her. She is funny and clever and smart. Not smart in a nerdier-than-thou way, just quietly curious about the world, its inhabitants, and what makes everything tick. She told me the story once of how her grandmother fought for her daughter’s education, a rare thing in the country of her mother’s birth. Vonnie’s made sure that not one iota of that effort went to waste.
She is loving and kind and wise and prone to fits of giggles with little provocation. A loving wife and mother, quiet and kind and patient, blessed with an adoring husband who continues to show her his love in a thousand small and daily ways. My favorite way is when they waltz. Often there is music, though sometimes it seems to be supplied internally through a tune they share by touch and know by heart. They would regularly embrace and move together, turning slowly.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, the ground shook. There was a collective gasp that rippled across family and friends, an echoing shock wave of disbelief. Invasive surgery brought back as much of her body as it could, but, amazingly, left her spirit untouched.
She recovered gradually, submitting to grueling but necessary treatments that taxed both her body and her patience. I pictured her in the oncology ward, hooked up to one machine or another, muttering “Oh, bother!” under her breath in a very Winnie-the-Pooh way. She recovered, reclaiming her place in the world, embracing each day despite the shadows that remained; shadows in her mind, and shadows in her body, biding their time as they gradually grew and spread.
More surgery followed, and more treatments. She submitted to the tubes and bags and exhaustion and confinement when she needed to with all the grace she could muster. The combination of regrowth revelations and intentionally limited research (sometimes a person with cancer just shouldn’t stray out too far into the online medical journals and statistics) pared away her energy, but only seemed to deepen her courage and strengthen her will.
She donned a new purpose, and dubbed it project ETHOOL – Enjoy The Heck Out Of Life. She would focus on the joys that were uniquely hers during these days. She chose not to go quietly into that good night. She redefined for me what it meant to be courageous, to live, and to love, teaching me lessons I will never forget.
When I visit, we talk over tea and I compliment her on the equanimity with which she faces her illness. She looks at me as if to say, “What choice do I have?”. But she does have choices. I imagine what I might do in her situation, kicking and screaming and railing at the fates, or retreating like Puff the Magic Dragon, giving up and giving in and giving out before my time.
Quietly fierce, she intermittently passes in and out of the hospital, her trips through its revolving door bring her time and again from the brink of loss with infusions of blood and nourishment for her body, wisdom and patience for her mind, and loving gifts for her spirit. She often held court in the women’s cancer ward, entertained by impromptu concerts and jigs. Her friends conspired to make a heart in the snow of a field nearby, large enough so she could see from the window of her hospital room, making visible their love for her.
Later, when the doctors had exhausted their magic, she crossed the threshold into hospice. It is a bourn from whose edge no traveler returns, but she has traveled the path on her own terms. Time and again, we would hear word of another good day. A day spent enjoying family, going for short walks, basking in the sunshine, and enjoying the visits of family and friends from both near and far. Somehow she took sustenance from her surroundings and made her own path.
When I visit her during her hospice at home, her eyes shine with a fierce love of each day. Her will brings her forward into each moment, although she chafes at the constraints of each day’s new “normal”. But each day invites her to do what she can, and although the list of these things grows smaller, she rises to the challenge of embracing them. When she found she was losing weight due to her cancer’s insatiable hunger for sustenance, I informed her we had entered the days of cheese and chocolate. Though her appetite dwindled, she would seek out the foods she loved most, often brought by friends and relatives who wanted to keep a steady supply on hand.
When the weather finally warmed, beating back the winter’s voluminous snow, a block party was thrown in her honor. They closed the road in front of her house for the afternoon, and there was food and balloons and street art and face painting. There was ice cream and music and dancing. Her friends had written a mummer’s play for her. In the play, they likened her life to a skein of yarn, showing how hers had grown short. Legions of people came forward to share lengths of their own yarns with her, tying theirs to hers in an effort to lengthen what was left, showing what we all clearly felt; that if it was in our power to save her, to heal her, to cure her, we would go to any length to do so. Finally, at the play’s end, they brought out a giant ball of yarn and handed it to her. The ball, the play, the event, each spun and wound by love.
This has been the most beautiful thing, the faint silver lining, this continuous outpouring of love. The visitors and the comforters, the companions and the champions and the supporters. The whirlwind of their constant love keeps Vonnie firmly fixed in its center, lifting her. We are all saddened. We are shocked and winded at the turning tides of her illness. We do what we can, and, most days, that seems to be enough.
Later, I visit her during hospice at home and offer to read aloud to her and she joyfully accepts. She is delighted to be home, with her family, in her bedroom, on her porch, in her kitchen, cared for by family and close friends. I truly believe that hospice people do God’s work on this earth, helping those we love through uncomfortable and unfamiliar places. There are no needles and no beeping machines. Caregivers come by at regular intervals to check on her and support her. They massage her tired and aching body. They provide for her medically and informationally and spiritually.
Over time, the cancer has stolen so much from her; from us. Her appetite, her strength, and now it begins taking her thoughts. When I see her, she is still, gaunt, and quietly luminous. Clearly, her candle is burning at both ends. She sits obviously uncomfortable, but unwilling to lie down, not wanting to miss a moment. She’d often begin a sentence, but the thought would trail off sometimes, replaced by something completely different from what she likely intended. The hospice nurse indicated this was normal, though it might be somewhat jarring.
Her son was sitting beside her on the hospital bed in the upstairs bedroom when she stated quite clearly that we needed more action figures. At times she grew frustrated when the words that came out of her mouth weren´t the ones she intended, but he kisses her forehead and gently reassures her that they could check with her husband when next they see him and ask about getting some. I was thinking how this world did, in general, need more action figures; people willing to do something instead of just sit and talk. I was wondering if anyone would be willing to make an action figure of Vonnie, Queen of ETHOOL.
She is taking less and less from this world; less to drink and eat because it’s getting hard to swallow; less interaction with our world because the need for sleep often supersedes everything else. She glances at her bed quilt, tracing its intricate filigree of stitching with a tentative finger. Her body seeks touchstones of her physical presence here, with us. She is read to and sung to and very, very loved. A conspiracy of kindness has woven itself around her during her sojourn with this disease.
In the end I will be bereft at her loss. I could never call the death of a close friend good. Truly, it’s an awful thing all around. But if I can someday stand back and view these few years during her illness through the lens of lessons learned, I hope to see some good in it. The way people came to her, the way she carried herself, and at times let us carry her, was good. The way she chose each day to enjoy the things, both large and small, that were within reach. The way she loved and was loved. The way ordinary time was made richer knowing that there was an end in sight. The way she never gave up. The way her family loved her. The way she sucked the marrow out of the metered moments she was given. The way she brought a numinous quality to the quiet hours I spent with her, showing me a way, the way, to face this.