Wisdom, one-liners, and staying real in the midst of the muck
In the weeks before Sister Sue Tracy died June 29, 2016, she was at ease, at times energized, and yes, still delivering her trademark one-liners, as she talked about her decision to end cancer treatment, enter Hospice, and face the end of one life and the beginning of another — for her, a certainty shrouded in mystery.
As always, Sister Sue, 6-time cancer veteran, former oncology chaplain, half-century+ member of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids and cancer iconoclast extraordinaire, never shied away from talking about the tough stuff.
“ ‘Shy’ isn’t in my vocabulary,” she said with a muted hoot as she sat in a chair in her sun-drenched room at Marywood, leaves dancing in the sun, shortly before her 76 birthday and her death soon after.
This time she was sharing her thoughts on death and dying, fear and faith, the role of humor in it all, and what I call “extra innings” – aka the legacy of arguably the biggest Detroit Tigers/Harvey Kuenn fan on the planet.
Our series of three conversations was aided and abetted by Jean MacDonald, Sue’s long-time BFF.
The Legacy: Last Lessons
* Faced with cancer #6 metastasizing in her brain beyond medicine’s reach, she chose to end life on her terms.
When it was clear the treatment arsenal was out of magic bullets, she was faced with a choice:
Last-ditch radiation with its possibility of a little extra time paid for at a debilitating physical cost vs. entering Hospice with its emphasis on keeping the pain at bay and the physical and mental descent as comfortable as possible.
From what I saw during Sister Sue’s last weeks, for her, Hospice was the ultimate choice between quality and iffy quantity.
As one of many privileged to spend time with her after she made that choice, I was struck again and again by:
* Her joy despite the inevitable fading of mind and body.
Her delight in all of us who were able to be with her for even a few minutes — to share in flashes of vintage Sue-ness, which she’d lost and we had mourned during some of her darkest times.
* Her steadfast faith, a triumph over fear.
“It’s a grace or a strength from God to believe deep, deep down that life is precious, and it has its vulnerable moments, and it has a beginning a middle and an end … and the end is a phenomenal beginning forever.
“I am trying to enter into the truth of the reality I have been invited to embrace.”
How did her decision not to prolong life artificially as long as possible, fit with her faith?
“Our faith supports us when the evidence scientifically indicates that there is a limited time, it’s OK to do what I’m doing … go into Hospice, prepare for letting go. … God knows the moment and the hour.”
* Her ability to still crack wise and crack us up at the same time.
“I’m not eager, eager, eager to die, but I’m willing when the time is right…”
She chuckled at the memory of a visiting friend who said she couldn’t wait to hear the music chosen for Sue’s funeral.
“ ‘Please wait!’ I said.” Laughs around.
“Thank God I’ve rounded out here (at her beloved Marywood.) What a privilege it’s been. I was hoping I wouldn’t drop dead on the sidewalk!”
* Her dedication to staying true to who she was and what was important to her: “Staying real in the midst of the muck.”
“ This is what God has invited me to embrace, as best I can… I don’t have to prove anything to anybody… ”
* Her candor that, “I may not be able to laugh my way out of this one.”
* Her honesty in answering whether she truly was at peace with dying, or whether she was “wearing a mask” to make us feel better:
“It’s a combination, of course it is. Of course it is. I want you to be comfortable with the reality that I am dying. We’re not destined to live forever.”
* Her conviction that humor “is as significant a part of life as anything serious or sad or hard… Not everything’s funny, but it’s a part of it and not to be excluded.
“Humor has a rich gift to stretch us out of the current moment that’s one of sadness or difficulty. Humor has a divine gift to broaden our perspective. to help us cope with hope. To look at the bright and the difficult sides, to know it’s all one.“
“To be a complete life, it has to have sadness, hope, happiness, pain and letting go…”
* Her staunch defense of anyone who doesn’t see it that way:
“ I don’t think people should be criticized if they can’t see humor in illness or deprivation of what they want life to be. It can be very tough stuff.
“I am trying to enter into the reality of the truth I have been invited to embrace… I just want to be receptive and not stand in the way of this.”
* The gift of what she called gentle listening, which she brought to the thousands of us dealing with cancer she met with or counseled over more than half a century.
“ I wasn’t there to talk anybody into anything in particular.
“Each of us has the right to forge out what is real for us, and it varies, person to person. And in so doing, bless each other. Be a blessing to each other.
* Her wisdom on dealing with grief after the death of someone we love.
“Stay real. There’s no right or wrong in grieving. Don’t do anything artificial.
“The legacy is to live your life so it’s meaningful.”