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.







An Honest Wedding

I went to an unusual wedding last week in Western Michigan.  It doesn’t matter whose (except to note it wasn’t mine)—call them John and Jane.

Bride and groom are both in their early 50s. She has two daughters, each in their early 20s. He has a son 16 and a daughter 11. It’s a second marriage for both.

The minister defined eclectic; she had spiritual credentials from several traditions. The ceremony featured candles and white rose petals, and was held upstairs from the minister’s husband’s bike shop.  Of the nine attendees (which includes bride, groom, minister and children), five of us chose the optional bare feet mode.

The minister said:

Like all weddings, this is a joyous celebration, a union of two soul-mates who have found each other.  A time for joy.

Yet joy isn’t the only thing that happens at a wedding like this.  There are three others who are not here, but whose presence is very real, and felt by all who are here.

We would not be honest if we did not speak of them.  And honesty is vital if this marriage, and all in this room, are to  thrive and prosper.  And so we will be honest here today.

One presence is a deceased mother, who left behind a husband—John—their 13-year old boy, and their 8-year old girl. Her children here today miss her; John senses her presence too; and Jane feels it as well.

Second is a divorced husband—the father, with Jane, to these two daughters in their twenties. The daughters see their mother with a new husband, and seek new definitions of “home” and “parent” and “marriage.”

The third is cancer.  It was cancer that claimed John’s former wife, the teens’ mother.  But Jane understands too—because Jane herself is a two-time cancer survivor.  The children know what cancer means; and John and Jane have their eyes wide open about it.
These three presences raise powerful issues for everyone in this room—which is why we speak of them.

As the minister spoke, I’m sure I saw the four children become more at ease.  I felt it, and think the other adults did as well.

Afterwards we ate fruit and cake.  Then we drove to Lake Michigan, changed into shorts and got wet and red from the end-of-summer sun.

We talked about truth-telling, of living in the moment.  But mostly we talked about being free of labels and roles, of learning to see and accept things just as they are.

It was a fine wedding.  An honest wedding.