Leaving Las Vegas

I’m flying home to Virginia at an altitude of 10,000 feet and climbing. As my eyes drink in the sight of the gorgeous desert mountain below, I feel I want never to forget what I am seeing. I silently whisper, Good bye, Las Vegas. I don’t think I’ll ever be back, now that Norma is gone. I let profound sadness briefly embrace me as I think of her life, of her love of the outdoor world, rich knowledge of geology, and much more. And then I accept, with regret as always, that there’s a time to say hello and a time to say good-bye.

I think of the Glioblastoma Support Group Norma had joined two years earlier. I’d felt so privileged to go with her. There was Todd, who’d founded the group after his own diagnosis, Norma, Betty, and several others with whom I’d become deeply connected. They became each other’s lifelines: sharing their experiences, what treatment had helped, what hadn’t, and what experimental treatment they were trying out for the brain cancer for which there presently remains no cure. They are all gone now, two years later, despite their valiant efforts and courage. Every one of them, gone. I think of each dear face, each story, each supporting family member by their sides and I am so thankful I knew them all. Good bye, dear ones.

I’ve just spent the past week with Norma’s sister, Linda, at Norma’s desert home in Las Vegas’ outskirts, where the amazing lights of the Vegas strip were in view yet far enough away to not impede the rich solitude of her home, overlooked by beautiful Lonesome Mountain. There she had created a unique landscape on her property that reflected her love of the natural world and the unusual plants and rocks it offered as gifts.IMG_20170501_164841098

The night I arrived, I stepped outside alone into the dark night onto the pool patio. The desert breeze blew sturdily and I found myself centered in a rush of wind that caused Norma’s huge lavender plants and grasses and flowers to bend, to reach out and touch me. Surround me. Reminding me that while she traveled the world, home was here. As I stood, open to anything else the night would bring, these words silently arrive: I am still here… This place will always be part of me… Remember me….

I think back to two years when I stayed with Norma for several weeks after her initial surgery. Chemo. Radiation. Her glioblastoma support group. Losing her hair. Falling down. Working to regain the use of her right arm again and strengthen her legs. Loss of appetite. Losing weight. Struggling to create food that appealed to her compromised body. Our shared time was often intense, yet we had some moments of deep, rich conversation.

One night shortly after I’d arrived, I asked, “Norma, what’s on your bucket list that I can help you do while I’m here?”

She didn’t hesitate. “I want to finish my book.” She paused, looked into the distance, then said, as she swung her arm in an arc to encompass the world inside her home, “I’ll be at peace with letting go of this life.” My first thought was that I couldn’t accept her feeling of being okay about letting go, until I took time later to think deeply about Norma’s present life. This woman who had climbed and studied mountain ranges all over the world could now not leave home without a wheelchair. There was no cure for glioblastoma. If she elected repeated surgeries, her risk was very high that her brain and cognitive skills would become impaired. In fact, I came to see IMG_20170501_165016803that glioblastoma would steal her life twice: first, by removing her completely from the life she’d loved so passionately, and later it would take the life breath from her body.

“Sure, let’s get started with the book,” I said. “What can I do?”

Following each morning’s ablutions, we sat at the dining room table at the computer and worked until lunch. After lunch we resumed until she took an hour nap. I saw how her energy increased by having set this goal. I also mourned how difficult it was for her to find, gather, and organize the material she needed on her Mac. Already she had sustained brain impairment. Later, when the cancer stepped out of remission and began to creep around her brain again—the best brain in the family, in my opinion—her oncologist pressed for a second surgery. Norma debated at length and then declined surgery so as not to risk further cognitive harm. Her primary reason for living was her book.

We worked as much as we could, with painfully slowness, each day until I returned home, not wanting to be utterly depleted and feeling I’d lost my life as I became her caretaker, yet it was my truth. We talked by phone then, not often enough, but doing our best. Sometimes she was sharp and talked as she always had, with wit and intelligence, while other times I could not understand her.

Our most memorable conversation for me was one when I asked a question I’d been wondering about. “Norma, do you remember what you told me about wanting to complete your book, and then you’d be at peace with dying?”

“No,” she replied, a puzzled tone in her voice. Perhaps confusion or unhappiness because she could not remember or something else I couldn’t identify.

The conversation passed into memory. Until I talked with her sister, Linda, a few days after Norma died. After I expressed my condolences, I said, “Linda, I have to ask. Did Norma get the book finished?”

“The final draft arrived the day before she died, but she was in a coma then so she didn’t get to see it. But, yes, it’s done.”

I will never forget Linda’s words. Each time I think of them, I’m profoundly reminded of how powerful are our intentions. Powerful enough for a woman with a horrific brain cancer to achieve her heart’s desire.

IMG_20170501_172855244 (2)Norma wished her ashes to be spread in four of her favorite locations: among her favorite plants, trees, and places at her home, moments I shared as Linda caringly performed as I tenderly witnessed; high on a Nevada mountain, which her local hiking friends will do; on another mountain on a different continent, which other hiking friends will carry out; and on the small dairy farm in Cherry Valley, NY, where she and Linda grew up, which Linda will do. I’d like to go with her, if I can.

So, the sandy desert mountains are behind me now, probably forever. In my heart, though, I know Norma is at peace and I am, as well.

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About Mary Jo Doig

At the turn of the millennium, I arrived at a cross-road that brought me a splendid, if unforeseen place, almost as if I were a traveler on Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled. I was single again, my three children were grown and building their lives, I'd experienced a health issue and was working on an improved lifestyle. I also ached to do two other things: (1) change my long human services career in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains, where winter seemed to be at least seven months out of every year, and (2) move to a warmer place in the universe. My decision: did I want to continue on the path I'd been following pretty much all my life, or could I gather my then-fragile courage and start life brand new somewhere else? These were scary thoughts for a single woman in her late 50s. Five hundred miles away, though, I fell in love with a new mountain range, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I knew not a soul except my daughter who was attending college in the Shenandoah Valley, and I moved. I rented a tiny cabin on a mountain in the woods and lived there in solitude for two years, working in a new career by day and, when home, communing with the incredible natural beauty that surrounded me. There I also began to write my life stories, which were aching for release. I joined the Story Circle Network in early 2001, a rich place in cyberspace for women life writers, where I strengthened my written voice and began sharing my stories. I grew there in so many ways and today I'm a long-time editor for the "True Words from Real Women" section of the quarterly Journal, as well as a reader and reviewer of women's memoirs for the SCN Book Review site, another unique place in cyberspace. Then, next year, I’ll again be honored to be program chair for our Stories from the Heart national conference in Austin, TX. I have so many loves: first, my three children: my son, Chip and daughter, Polly, both in Virginia; and my youngest daughter, Susan, in Florida, and also dear family and friends. I must also include my cats Hilary (20) and Button (5). Sometimes I foster cats and kittens for the Humane Society, but Button prefers me not to. My hobbies include reading, writing, editing, cooking, gardening, quilting, knitting, biking, and simply being with the profound beauty of the mountains that embrace my small two acres in the Blue Ridge. The life stories I began writing in 2001 have grown deeper with time, re-writes, and personal growth. Now, all these years later, I believe I've sliced through the layers to reach the heart of my story, and am presently working on the final revision of my memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life.
This entry was posted in Aging, Family, Glioblastoma, Grace, Health, Mother Nature, Mystery. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Leaving Las Vegas

  1. Elaine Ercolano says:

    Sorry for the loss of your friend. Norma sounds like an amazing person. May your memories comfort you.

    Like

  2. What a poignant post about Norma and your relationship with her. How wonderful of you to help her get her book written. Such a gift for a writer. I think this is one of your most beautiful posts, Mary Jo. Thank you for sharing this part of your journey with us.

    Like

  3. This is a beautiful story beautifully written. Especially your description of being out with the wind stirring the lavender around you. And your subtle nudge to those of us who have a book to get out before … well, before we can be at peace.

    Like

  4. This is beautiful, Mary Jo. Thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mary Jo Doig says:

    Thank you, Jazz. No nudge intended, but now that you mention it…. 🙂

    Like

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