Playing a Losing Hand to Win

Four years and 9 months ago I wrote a blogpost called An Honest Wedding. It was about the nuptials in western Michigan of a cancer patient “Jane,” and the widower of a cancer victim, “John.”

This week I was back in Michigan, to attend the inevitable bookend of that blogpost – the funeral of “Jane,” in real life my youngest sister, Priscilla. She was beautifully eulogized by the same minister who had married them.

What stood out was not the tragedy of a good woman lost before her time, but the extraordinary good she made of her life. She played a losing hand, and won.

A Losing Hand

Priscilla had multiple myeloma, a disease that normally has a life expectancy of 1-3 years. She ran it out for 17.

An RN, she had experience in both midwifery and hospice. She had the ability to serve as her own patient advocate, and she did so successfully.

Still, back in 2007, the marriage of a recently-divorced woman already living on borrowed time to a recently-bereaved-by-cancer widower seemed like a long shot bet on the romantic triumph of hope over cold reality.  With four children in play, two of whom had lost one mother already, the potential for emotional damage seemed almost unbearable.

The Honest Wedding mitigated that risk by facing it squarely and directly. But honesty alone can’t stop multiple myeloma.

Winning with a Losing Hand

Over a hundred people attended her celebration this Saturday; it opened with the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, and closed with drums and trumpet playing When the Saints Go Marching In.

The eulogy, and a dozen people who testified, all said the same thing: she had managed to win, despite having been dealt a losing hand. The longer she lived, the more imminent her death seemed, the more she became kind, open, giving, caring, appreciative, and often joyful.

As the minister said, “She found a way to hold on to every precious moment of her life at the same time that she released her hold on it and let it go.” As her sister said, Priscilla was an old soul since childhood; she was a caretaker, sharing easily of her emotions.

She found her way, everyone agreed, through a focus on simplicity and flexibility: living in the moment by focusing on nature, caring about others, and accepting life on life’s terms. At the same time, her journey involved finding her own boundaries, trusting her own instincts. The minister again:

There are people who become bitter and angry when cancer comes and death looms. They resist help and communication about their illness. Not Priscilla. She embraced her lot in life, her destiny, and took us along on the journey with her.

Some people say it takes a village to raise a child. I think – it takes a village to live a life.

To the last days and even hours of her life, Priscilla remained this way: engaged, and in love with life and with those in her village.

That village, represented at the ceremony, included her first husband, with whom she had forged a deep friendship, all five children she had helped raise, members of all churches she had been part of, and innumerable micro-communities she had touched.

I truly don’t think Priscilla ever lost a friend she’d ever made, and she made many.

She played a losing hand and won, not just for herself, but for everyone else who had placed a side bet by being part of her life and her village.