I hadn’t thought about it while gazing at these three glittery-lit deer way back when, six months ago today, but I was also on another nightly lookout, for another dear: a deathwatch for Mary Burks.
All the deer/dears lost their brilliance for me after December 19, 2015. Or perhaps more accurately: the deer seemed less magical, as soothing, if silly, elixir during deathwatch; and Mary, as my chosen second mom and me a chosen daughter, took so much of inner light from this world with her when she left it.
She wouldn’t have wanted to steal her sparkle from us. In fact, I imagine she’d have some marvelously illuminating anecdote-saying to share about why and how we make (or need to make) light for each other, punctuated by her iridescent smile, twinkling and soul-piercing eyes, and always perfectly pleasing and color-coordinated costume jewelry. Like the deer, she worked magic.
I recognized that to a depth I hadn’t understood until I watched her dying and death journey. She came home to do that, with in-home hospice, weakly affirming, “No heroic measures” in the hospital after a stroke. I learned during her last week, by playing witness to grace and love, that she’d self-made home over the past four years in a quirky, not-fancy “assisted living facility,” or what I would call a caring-community-as-family. Most of the mostly female residents hadn’t chosen to move to this place. Ill health, death of spouse, and other unpleasant circumstances forced their hand. “I came here to die,” many would explain, and perhaps rightly so. For Mary, though, she always said that she had “come here to live.” And live she did, until her last breath.
Her living was about bringing life to all around her. Life meaning light, and light meaning life, as if she were sun. Not glaring sun, or scorching one, or one that burns you or wants to outshine all others. Gentle warmth, enveloping, giving, passing along what it has so that all may grow and blossom around it.
That last week of her life, she waived her “right” to privacy, and let the entirety of her community know that she was dying and why. She let everyone come visit her, and she let them know she was at peace with dying, which she was. Never once did she waiver in her decision that life was only worth living if one could still retain quality. And her stroke meant she couldn’t. She greeted death was as much graciousness, gratitude, and mutualistic tenderness, without complaint, as she did everyone she met. Death was yet another intriguing character to get to know, an egalitarian acquaintance that she could make into egalitarian, loving friend.
So while she lay dying, her bright eyes losing their luster and her cheerful voice becoming softer, she also greeted all her many friends in this community. By which I mean everyone: custodians and grounds crew, nurses and caretakers, delivery people, administrators, kitchen and dining hall workers, recreation and rehab center staffers, residents, friends and family of residents, anyone and everyone who lived, worked, or even occasionally visited this assisted living home.
It wasn’t simply that everyone visited her, and that she, in turn, utterly directed the whole of her attention toward them. It was that most pulled us aside, her bio and chosen family, to say: “She’s become my grandmother.” “She feels like my sister.” “She’s the best friend I never had.” “She knows all my secrets; no one else does; no one else ever cared to.” “I can tell her anything, and she remembers every detail, and remembers to ask about them again.” “I call her mom. She is my mom.” That last one — among dozens and perhaps hundreds who felt this way — was a maintenance guy who Mary used to stay up with until 2 or 3 a.m. in the lobby, him playing guitar and her letting her cat wander around — both against the rules. She really felt him son, and he really holds her as mom. Her cat is now in his home, and he still grieves Mary as deeply as any kin and feels her presence through her cat.
They didn’t just pull us aside, however. They told Mary all they told us, and she, genuinely, returned words of care and love to them. For her ability to make nearly anyone who met her feel fully themselves, fully seen and cared for, fully heard and understood, was her brilliance, her magic — what brought her total light. She loved the real-life stories, the trials and tribulations and joys, of all she met, not as collector of tales or gossip. She could see inside people’s hearts, and her art — alongside the fact that she’d been and was an artist and art teacher — was that she could ably draw out what might otherwise go unseen, unheard, uncared for. She gave life and shape to the best of what was inside people, what they were scared to share with others, because she truly cared to know, and had an almost sixth sense about what to ask each person to make them feel comfortable, at ease, loved.
She didn’t want any fancy ceremony, words, or memorials in her honor after death. She didn’t want honor. Her short obituary simply encouraged people to do good for others — her words, handwritten on a note that we found, almost accidentally during that time of death, in her desk. “Life is for the living,” many say. With Mary, “Life is for the giving” — of self, to all, for each other.
I didn’t watch her die, as part death doula, part chosen daughter, part witness, wholly aggrieved. I watched love and life swirl around her. Love and life that she had birthed in a place where people, including me, think they’ve come to die after losing all they love.
Maybe her light isn’t as extinguished as I thought after all.
I love you, Mary ❤
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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, East Lansing, Michigan, December 2015.)