My friend, Elizabeth Bergman, passed today. This photo is one her husband took of her when they lived in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. Less than six months ago, I was standing with Elizabeth in the Sinking Creek in Missouri. A brave, beautiful woman she was. Hard-working. Ten days ago, we met at a cabin in the Ozarks with 20+ of our friends–a chance to say goodbye. She intended to cook breakfast on Sunday morning. She stood from the kitchen table and walked slowly to the island in the middle of the kitchen and said, “I’m not sure I can do this.” I told her to sit down and tell me what to do. I scrambled the dozen eggs she’d brought, spread the breadcrumbs in the casserole pan, poured on mushroom soup and sausage and then the scrambled eggs as she called out directions. I sprinkled it all with cheese and put it in the oven for an hour. It was easy to take directions from her, easy to say yes and to set aside any hesitation or thoughts of my own about how I wanted breakfast to go.
I’ve cried some tears these past few weeks, and I’ve tried to let go of any notion that I might have control over how anything is going to go, whether it’s breakfast or my drive to work or a phone call with a friend. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my husband’s friends went missing a few weeks ago. Well, they found his body, and more than 1,000 people attended his funeral. Another friend, a musician, recently found out her abdominal pain was due to pancreatic cancer, and it has spread to her liver and her spine. Several friends organized a life celebration concert for her last weekend, singing songs she’d written and songs she loved as she joined in from her wheelchair in the audience. Last weekend, I also went to a memorial service for the six-year-old son of another musician friend. Lots of dying going on around here.
Most people, if you ask how they’d like to die, say they want to go quick, no suffering, maybe in their sleep. One of my friends is an expert in the field of dying and in the care of those who are dying. She talks about a “good death” in this TedX talk. It seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? She proposes that dying, like birth and adolescence, is a transition, and there are healthy ways to transition from one life stage to another. And there are not-so-healthy ways. My friend Elizabeth said goodbye to all her friends and family in the past two weeks. Her last Caring Bridge post was four days ago–she described her many family members as “roosting chickens.” They all came to her home to roost, and to say goodbye. I think it was a good death.
Today, just hours before Elizabeth died, a friend suggested I try to practice this koan: be grateful for everything. EV-ER-Y-THING. Grateful for the phone call telling me Elizabeth had passed. For the text-messaged hugs from another friend. For the friend who called saying he can’t sleep at night for worry about his son’s desire to join the army when he graduates from high school in the spring. For the ice covering the sidewalks, the old film, On Golden Pond, that I watched tonight while holding my husband’s hand.
Here’s a cover of Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me.” I first heard this song when Patti Griffin sang it in Liberty Hall in Lawrence, KS, in 2004. This is for Elizabeth, and for the guys she loved the most… Christopher and Owen and Michael. I’m grateful to be witness to the love you have all shared.