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Dappled in light, from this world and the next
By JEANNE MALMGREN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2000
A tiny figure in a rainbow cap knitted by a Hospice volunteer, she lay on a reclining chair her children had wheeled out a side door of her St. Petersburg house. They parked her on a patio drenched in late-afternoon sunlight, azaleas blooming nearby.
It was a huge task to lift Marilyn out of bed without hurting her, make sure she had enough blankets to keep her warm, hook her up to a portable oxygen tank, maneuver the chair through doorways and over thresholds. But it was all worth it.
As soon as she felt the sun on her face, Marilyn's chin tilted to the sky. Her nostrils flared. Her eyes closed in bliss.
"Mmmmm. It's incredible," she murmured. "The air. I feel like I'm in heaven."
When you're dying, as Marilyn is, simple pleasures are exquisite. Each time could be the last time, each experience the final gift. Moments are like jewels.
She is always cold, despite layers of warm bedding. A humidifier and oxygen machine help her breathe. This week, after her kidneys began to fail, a permanent catheter was inserted. A nurse is on duty around the clock.
Her children, who had been coming and going from their homes in other states, have flown in to stay by her side. Friends visit at all hours, because they know time is running out.
Yet, Tuesday Marilyn still wanted to talk. There was more to say.
"You know, after the doctor gave me the prognosis and after I'd tried all these alternative healing methods and nothing seemed to work and I was so tired, I just said, "Okay, I'm going to get ready to die.' And I'm glad I've gotten ready. It's been a wonderful process and I don't regret a minute of it. But . . ."
Tears clotted her throat.
"I've had such a wonderful life. I am going to miss it soooo much."
In an earlier conversation, Marilyn described some of the things she will miss most.
Her children's laughter. The scent of fresh flowers in a vase. The coos and gurgles of her 3-month-old grandson, the smell of his head. Violin music. The aroma of onions and garlic sizzling in a pan on the stove. The rustling of wind in the trees outside her house.
"I'm going to miss the sun when it comes out after a big rainstorm, and the electricity you can feel in the air after a storm."
Marilyn, who spent much of her professional life as a licensed massage therapist, revels in memories of touch, too.
"I'm going to miss kisses and hugs. And I'll miss looking into eyes of love."
Many of her most treasured memories are from her farm in Tennessee, where she spent half of each year.
"I'm going to miss sitting on my porch on summer nights with the sky filled with green fireflies going on and off, and cicadas filling the entire valley with this trancelike drone of sound. And I'll miss gardening there, the sun on my back and my big straw hat on my head."
Sometimes, in these last few housebound months, Marilyn has dreamed of what she'd do if she had one perfect day left, if the cancer would magically vanish and she could get out of her sick bed and go anywhere she liked."
"I'd start with breakfast at the Kopper Kitchen," she says, grinning widely, "And I'd have Fred Tirabassi's whole-grain, seeded pancakes with butter and maple syrup. Two soft-boiled eggs with toast. And home fries. And bacon."
Then she would go to Pass-a-Grille, the southernmost part of St. Pete Beach, her favorite place to visit the gulf. There she and her family would play in the waves for hours.
"We'd get ourselves tired and hungry, then we'd go to Ted Peters and have smoked fish, with German potato salad and big slices of tomato."
The afternoon would be spent at home, maybe drawing or doing some stretching movement to music. After a fine dinner, she and friends would stay up late, "laughing, talking, doing what we love to do best, just hanging out."
In these final days, Marilyn naturally has spent time looking back, taking stock of her life, weighing successes against failures. Her list of regrets is short.
"One thing I'm sorry I didn't do is that after my injury, I didn't go on with my creative life."
In 1987 Marilyn's lower body was paralyzed in an accident. She sold the holistic health clinic she had founded and "became a recluse. I stubbornly sat on my butt, literally and figuratively."
An art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before she married and had children, Marilyn says now that she realizes she could have taken up art again after her accident forced her to stop working, but she didn't. "I had an opportunity and I didn't take it."
Another regret involves a relationship years ago with a man who wanted to marry her and have children. At the time Marilyn was twice divorced, rearing two adolescent sons on her own and had a busy career. The man, a writer, volunteered to stay home and care for the children while she continued to run her clinic.
"I didn't trust that a man would really do that, even though he showed all the signs that he would," she recalls. "So eventually he moved on and married someone else. I threw away a great relationship because of my fear and mistrust."
"He's the most amazing father. He can sit for hours with Shane and be totally fascinated. I've never seen a man do that. He's been developing his nurturing qualities for years, but this baby has brought out everything in him. I'm so proud, and so touched."
She also has seen herself in a new light, through the lens of terminal illness.
"It's taken my whole life, and this death, to see the fullness of who I am," she said on Tuesday. "These last months, these days, I have really let it in. And it's not a bad thing to own that, to know it."
Dying also has taught her trust, she says. When your life is ebbing, you have no other choice. Trust is all you can do.
"The thing that keeps amazing me is this idea of just asking and then letting go, and completely trusting that it's all going to unfold. This was a big piece for me, to trust God for everything."
Trust isn't only for the dying, though.
Marilyn says too many of us think we have lots of time left. We can set things right in our lives next month, or next year, or after we retire.
That's an artificial sense of security, she cautions. We could die tomorrow. Or the person with whom we need to settle an argument could die tomorrow. We need to reach out, and trust that it's safe to do that.
"Don't . . . hold . . . back . . ." Marilyn says, pausing between each word for emphasis.
"Say what you need to say. Don't be afraid to love. Don't walk away, don't turn your back, don't say, "I'll deal with it tomorrow.' Don't let your fear rule you."
Fear no longer rules Marilyn Myers. In the twilight of her life, she is dancing.
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