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Cleaning house

Her priorities refocused, a dying woman gets rid of two things that can consume us: possessions and grudges.

By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
Marilyn and her friends often play crystal singing bowls with wooden mallets. The gentle sound soothes her.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Marilyn Myers' house in the Driftwood neighborhood sits amid a tranquil garden of spreading oaks and tropical plants.

Inside, evidence of Marilyn's love for the beautiful and unusual is all around.

Brass Tibetan "singing bowls" grouped on a coffee table. Stained glass torchieres. Alabaster candlesticks with fat beeswax candles lining the mantel. An arrangement of tiny shells and stones on an antique table.

Many of Marilyn's treasures, though, are gone. One of the first things she did when she began to prepare for death was to give away her possessions.

"I thought about how most people write a will and leave stuff to people in a kind of surprise way. People don't know what they're getting and then, when they finally do get it, the person is gone."

Marilyn, who is 50 and dying of ovarian cancer, wanted to do it differently. She wanted to give her things to her friends and loved ones now, while she is still around to enjoy the process.

"It's that joyous experience of giving and receiving. They get to thank me and I get to receive the appreciation."

First she asked her sons, Charris, 30, and Boomer, 28, to earmark the big stuff, including furniture, for themselves.

"I said, "You guys go around together and look at everything and talk about what you want, and I'm going to watch.' It was so beautiful. Each wanted the other to feel completely satisfied, that it was fair and that they had the things they wanted the most. They were so generous with each other."

Then Marilyn went around the house, tagging specific items she wanted to give to specific friends. She said it wasn't sad at all.

"I thought about each person and what they might like to have as a remembrance of me. It was really pleasurable."

She didn't strip the house bare. Some treasured items she wanted to keep with her during her illness.

"But I had conversations with people about what I was going to give them, so they would know. Some people cried and that was good, because it was an opportunity for us to grieve together."

Marilyn invited her women friends over for an unusual dress-up party. They opened her closet and tried on her clothes, choosing what they'd like to have.

"That was fun, seeing all my skirts and dresses on people who were standing up," said Marilyn, who has used a wheelchair for 12 years. She also divided her jewelry into individual muslin bags and distributed them to her friends.

She says all the giving away of "stuff" was enormously freeing.

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The warmth of Marilyn's friends, including Sally Cushman, her primary care nurse, is comforting.
[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]

"Possessions really possess us, you know? We have all these things. The house, the car, the boat. We have to protect them, manage them, wash them, clean them, fix them. Just taking care of your stuff consumes you."

Like many terminal patients, Marilyn felt driven to take care of unfinished emotional business. Luckily, she had only a few relationships that hadn't ended well or had unresolved feelings. She wrote letters to those people.

On Saturday she received an answer from one, a woman with whom Marilyn had difficulties 30 years ago.

"All is forgiven," the woman wrote. "And all is well."

Marilyn cried for an hour, then called the woman.

"We had the most beautiful conversation," she said. "It was a deep healing for both of us."

Dancing In The Twilight

As the end draws near for Marilyn Myers, who is terminally ill with ovarian cancer, she has embraced dying, finding joy where others often see despair. We are visiting her regularly for a series of conversations; you can find links to the previous installments here

Marilyn also called high school friends with whom she had long ago lost touch.

"I said, "I'm calling because I don't know how much longer I have to live and I want you to know that you meant a lot to me.' And they were all right there, telling me how important I had been in their lives, too."

Finally were the neutral relationships, people with whom Marilyn had once been close but had drifted away from.

"I called those people up and we just visited. We didn't talk about anything in particular. I just spent time with them with an open heart. If there were things I didn't like about the person or old resentments, I just let that go."

Marilyn says that's the beauty of being terminally ill.

"I have the power to give myself permission not to care anymore about the petty things. Why did I ever care? When you don't have much time left, you just say, "I'm going to give up these little annoyances.'

"It's easy. So easy."

* * *

NEXT: Marilyn's preparations for death, including a coffin in her living room.

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