One of the last visits I had with Colleen was several weeks before she died. She had come out of a really bad week, where she had thought that it might be the end. But here we are sitting on her back porch in the August sun watching the birds and talking about books, memories, God and what we meant to each other. She asked laughing what she should do if she was still alive when her memorial celebration was scheduled (October). I told her she should come, but everyone still had to say the nice things they would have if you weren't there. She laughed in that unmistakable husky chuckle. We sat in silence for a minute then she said.
"So what will you miss most about me?" It was a question that no one had ever asked me, but then again Colleen was unlike anyone else I had ever known....
I always joke that Colleen was the baby sitter than came to our family and never left. She was part of an amazing youth group at a church I served for only a few years in the 90's, but she became the sister that the boys never had and ultimately my surrogate daughter. Colleen in high school was a great student, solid athlete, gifted artist and writer, and a brilliant student (when she tried). But as a young woman her demons nearly rivaled her gifts. There was great suffering and tragedy in her childhood that had given birth to these shadows that at times nearly consumed her. But she lived and with "ferocity." She was a citizen of the world, a student of the spirit, and loved in a way that created circles of belonging that made friends family. Colleen in her way too short life traveled to over 30 countries, including seeing the Seven Wonders of the World and visited all fifty states.
Colleen was baptized and confirmed as a Christian but her relationship with God was an interesting one. When she called me to tell me she had cancer, she said "Well you will be happy that I believe in God again. I have to have someone to be angry with."
She had a plethora of issues with which to be angry with the Divine.
But she opened her heart to the beauty of this world and in her embracing of life and creation she believed in the "Creator of beauty and wonder" as she phrased it to me. She also believed in mercy-both of the receiving and giving kind. She was this remarkable mixture of both the Zen and Celtic spirit that made up her DNA. The East and West danced in her soul. She knew both the God of silence and crucifixion; of presence and absence; of plenitude and empty. She was a disciple of Simone Weil before she had read one page of her works
I don't fully remember how I answered her-my head and heart were fighting to a drawl. I think I mumbled I will miss our conversations and knowing that she was there.
She smiled "I will watch over you and throw stones at your windshield"
"Don't do that, I just had to replace it" I retorted.
She laughed and told me she loved me and I told her the same.
Two weeks later was the last time I spoke to her. It was two days after my dad had died. She asked me if there was anything she could do for me. I told her just knowing that she cared meant the world to me. She left this world four days later.
I will miss her laugh
I will miss her text and phone call on Father's Day
I will miss her book recommendations
I will miss being able to talk to her
I miss her.
Most of you reading this will not have known her, but I want you to meet her. The following is post she shared earlier this year:
My body is tired. My mind is tired.
My soul is tired. Enough is enough. I've played the role of the good
soldier dutifully, but I'm ready to rest. February marked my eight
year cancerversary since my initial diagnosis. Eight years. All of my
30's and nearly half my adult life. Eight years. In that time I've had
one major surgery, several small surgeries, twelve chemo regimens with
countless infusions, and almost fifty radiation treatments. It's been
quite the long haul...
In general, I think there is a tendency in modern medicine to
over-treat patients. I understand the drive to try all possible
options and the preference to do something over just waiting for the
inevitable, but I have no desire to die by inches slowly. I have come
to a place where I am very much at peace with the circumstances that
dictate and limit my life and its inexorable conclusion. I've
accomplished more than I ever imagined possible and have lived my life
to fullest of my capabilities. It's human nature to want more, but as
humans, we're all given a finite amount of life and the best we can do
is live that time well and fully. I take enormous comfort in the the
belief that I have lived my life as well and as fully as possible.
That comfort and peace allow me to face this final chapter with
serenity and perserverance. I face the next step with acceptance, not
One night this past winter as I stepped outside to watch the snow, I
was in awe of the beauty and tranquility surrounding me. Love it or
hate it, snow has the amazing ability to quiet and transform the world
around us; it's magical. In that moment of impossible stillness, there
was a hushed whisper, muffled and muted, yet still audible. It was one
of those rare moments when you become totally absorbed in an instant
and as I sat there listening to the sound within the silence, all the
calmness without mirrored the peace within and I knew everything would
be alright and I knew i was ready for the next step. I believe there
are times when the universe speaks to us; we have only to listen.
March rolled around within even more unpleasant surprises. After
another fantastic birthday in my favorite American city, New Orleans,
I came home and immediately became sick with some virus I picked up on
the plane no doubt. It was bad enough to go to the emergency room and
then be admitted for five days. Turns out I had developed pneumonia
from a respiratory virus found only in children under the age of 5.
Ugh. Since it was a virus, there wasn't much to do but wait it out.
Unfortunately, waiting it out took nearly a month until I was fully
recovered. On top of the virus, scans they ran while in the ER showed
multiple ("tons" to use the doctor's words) small blood clots in my
lungs and a new lesion on my mid spine that was already causing the
vertebrae to tilt and collapse. The blood clots were easily remedied
by taking two blood thinner injections a day instead of one. The spot
on my spine is a little more complicated. Currently, we're doing scans
and planning on one more round of radiation. Based on some other
symptoms I'm having, there's very likely another lesion lower on my
spine. Once we find all the trouble spots, I'll have another 2-3 weeks
of radiation treatment to prevent any further complications that these
lesions on my spine could cause.
Lastly, the biggest (and most heart-breaking) change came in February
when I had to put my beloved dog, Tinker, to sleep. It was one of the
hardest, saddest moments in my life, but I also learned so much.
Tinker was 15.5 years old. She was blind, nearly deaf, had significant
dementia, and of course, stinky. The happy, vibrant nugget of light I
had always known her to be was gone. She was in near constant fear or
anxiety. Yes, she probably could have lived a while longer, but she
was no longer the dog I remembered and I can't believe her quality of
life was very good. For a fact, I know she wasn't very happy. So as I
sobbed uncontrollably, I held her in arms as she left this life free
from pain and fear and anxiety and decay. Setting her free was the
last gift I could give her; one final act of pure love that I hope she
felt as she faded away from me forever. In so many ways and for so
many reasons, I miss her more than any words could describe.
From that experience, I thought about my own decline. I've gone from
having good weeks with a few bad days mixed in to having bad weeks
with a few good days sprinkled in. I don't do much these days and I
rarely leave the house for anything except doctor appointments or
grocery shopping. There was a time when my world was big and traveled
it from corner to corner. Now, life is small and I've learned to find
my joys close to home. As my world shrinks and my physical body fails,
I focus on quality of life and what I want in the end. When it comes
down to it, my desires are basic and modest. I want to leave this in
my own home, not in the hospital. I want to leave this life with
enough courage to make my family proud. I want to leave this with the
people I love most knowing how much they meant to me. I want to leave
this life having made a difference to someone somewhere. I want to
leave this life being remembered as a good person. Basic. Modest.
Human. This may be my story, but in the end, isn't this what we all
want and hope for?
In some way, I suppose that's why I write. I write because in the
telling of these stories, the memory says alive. This is me. These are
my experiences. These are my thoughts. These are my hopes. These are
my struggles. In childhood, memory forms through the acquisition of
language and words. It's truly fascinating to me. As we learn to speak
and put words to our experiences, we form memory through the ability
to verbally recount a moment. In that way, the memory stay alive. I
hope it's the same with my words. I hope they become a lasting imprint
of me. My life. Who I was. What I loved. The ferocity with which I
lived and the peace with which I died.
I will miss her beautiful prose
I have peace this Advent 2; it is a sad one, but nonetheless it is peace. It is the peace of a broken Christ, given to a broken world, received by a broken me. But I do stand amazed at how peace does come in the morning and in the mourning. Colleen knew that peace.