Sail On, Silver Bird
He told me while seated at the kitchen table that she was no longer responsive.
When I stopped by to give Ben a small bowl turned from wood salvaged from the downed White Oak tree where Stonewall Jackson held prayer services during the 1863 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, a lady I did not recognize answered the door. She told me Ben was in the kitchen.
As I walked through the hallway, I saw Betty Anne on a hospital bed set up in the downstairs living room. It hit me hard, since I knew she had relapsed in her treatment for pancreatic cancer, but I had not heard that she was now under Hospice care.
Ben is director of the Valley Civil War Institute and a retired Foreign Service Ofﬁcer whose U.S. Information Agency career spanned many years and a multitude of countries. When he retired, he went back to school at James Madison University and received his Masters Degree in history. He used to joke that his fellow graduate students, young enough to be his sons, would invite him to parties but never understood his requests to turn the music down so they could talk.
As I thought later about his beloved wife, this soul lying there awaiting her release, my mind turned again to L who passed some nineteen years ago this month under similar circumstances. Unfortunately, she in a hospital rather than at home. Toward the end, she awoke brieﬂy from a deepness I knew nothing of to tell me that dying was harder than we think.
This past week also marks the death of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss born psychiatrist best known for observing that most people go through similar emotional journeys when they know they have a terminal illness. Dividing the process into ﬁvestages–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance–she wrote about the stages of death in her 1969 book On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families. She was a strong advocate for the rights of the dying, and promoted what she called a “good death.”
Talking about her own debilitating inﬁrmities toward the end of her life, she said: “I told God last night that heʼs a damned procrastinator.” Dying is harder than we think.
Betty Anne was buried in a small churchyard in Hamilton, Virginia, a bucolic and still rural area in Loudoun County, just a few hours drive from the madness of Washington, DC. It was a quiet ending for an active and engaged lady.In her remarkable journey, she raised three sons, enjoyed the richness of living overseas in a number of disparate cultures, was an accomplished water color artist, and could return a tennis ball with marked determination. Ben told me that she had once shooed off a pride of lions that had decided to investigate their safari campsite in the Kenyan wilderness.
My wife and I last saw her in her vibrancy earlier in the year when she threw a near riotous 80th birthday party for Ben in a downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia, music store. One of Benʼs sons and a couple of his nephews ﬁnally got the grand old boy up on the stage with guitar in hand to play along. Some of those JMU graduate students Ben partied with in earlier days (and nights) should have been there to tell him to turn the music down.
All the time, Betty Anne shined with joy and pride.
So we say goodbye to a ﬁne lady who added a special light to this often dark world.Although any individual death can seem just part of the passing parade of those who have come and gone before us, they all are special. And I believe that although we all eventually merge into the great sea, the great sea also merges into us.
In my readings this week, I came upon the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho who was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947. In his journey of discovering the writer inside him, he came to realize that there are no great secrets to life…life is and will always be a mystery. In one of his books, which mostly deal with themes of mysticism and religion, he wrote, “If I must fall, may it be from a high place.”
Betty Anne might be gone now, but she lived a full life and she left her mark. She also did what most of us would want: She left from a high place. Sail on, Silver Bird.