When the Sun Sets on a Life Well-Lived

These past few weeks have been life-changing for me. It is hard for me to know where to start, so I’ll guess I’ll start at the beginning.

Several years ago, David and I began attending church services at the Congregational Church in South Amherst. One day, someone introduced me to Marie Houle, one of the matrons in the congregation. She just radiated love and kindness, and to make a long story short, we became friends. Eventually we started getting together every week, which I affectionately call my “Thursdays with Marie.”

Below are two photos of Marie’s 88th birthday party at my house in 2016, soon after we started getting together weekly:

 

Several weeks into our visits, Marie said that she had re-read both my books, and conveyed how much she enjoyed them. She asked, “Saloma, are you writing another book?” I said I wasn’t, because I was still trying to reconcile with the fact that I hadn’t gotten the Fulbright to study in Germany, and that I have thought about writing about my relationship with my mother, and yet I wasn’t sure whether that would be just for me, or whether I wanted to write for an audience.  She waited quietly while I went on about why I wasn’t writing. Then she said to me, “Well Saloma. I think you should write that book. Because you have been given a gift. For writing. And Saloma, you may not squander that gift.”

This moved me to tears. It seemed she knew me better than I knew myself. So I said, “I”ll tell you what Marie, I will write the story, and when we get together each week, I will bring a new chapter. We’ll read it together, and then I’ll leave it with you to read on your own, and if you want to make comments, I will very much appreciate that.”

That is what we did. Every week Marie and I exchanged chapters and I revised the chapters she handed back to me after discussing what resonated, or what I might want to add or leave out. She read my beginning chapters many times over.

Marie and me, hard at work one day. I was asking David not to take this picture, and Marie was getting a big kick out of that.

By mid summer 2016, I had written up to the point in my relationship with Mem when I left (in her way of thinking, ran away from home) the second and final time. And then one morning I had an epiphany that this book needed to be written for an audience… it was no longer a book I was writing for Marie and me. And of course Marie was not surprised, for she again recognized this before I did.

All during this process, Marie was filling the role of loving mother to me. One day, towards the end of the book, I told her how much it means to me that I have this mother-love from her because I felt that she loved me for exactly who I am. She hesitated a moment and then said, “Excuse me Saloma, but that is the way it should have been your whole life!” I just sat there and cried.

I wrote to the end of the book in September of last year. About a month later, Marie was diagnosed with lung cancer. Marie said to me, “I’m okay with this. I don’t want treatments. Whatever happens is okay. I know I’m in God’s Hands.”

For reasons unknown to me, she did end up electing both chemo and radiation treatments, which lasted for seven weeks. I watched her appetite and energy wane as I drove her to radiation treatment appointments. She was so looking forward to them being done, and her last day was just a few days after her 89th. birthday. We were ecstatic!

Our joy turned to sorrow just a short while later when Marie got a case of the shingles. That took weeks and weeks to heal, and then just as those were healing, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. This was in early June, just a little over a month ago.

Through all this pain and suffering, Marie kept her sense of humor and her smile. Back when she was still in treatment, a woman said to me in the waiting room, “Marie is such an amazing woman. When she walks into a room, her smile lights up the whole room. Does she even know that about herself? I bet she doesn’t.”

This person described Marie so well. When I told Marie what this person had said, she brushed it aside, and did not accept it as truth. She could have competed with the Amish for who was the humblest.

Marie’s two sons, Dale and Gary, took turns staying with Marie overnight when she could no longer be by herself. In the last week of her life, she clearly wanted to leave this world. She longed to be reunited with her late husband, Ed. She told me at some point that she had as many loved ones “upstairs” as she did down here.

During those interminably long days of Marie lingering on the threshold between the two worlds, I could not concentrate on much of anything. I sometimes went over during the day to give her sons a break. Then one night, I realized that in my role as caretaker, I wasn’t thinking about how much I would miss her. I decided to write to her. This is what I wrote:

August 9, 2017

My Dear Marie, Mother of My Heart,

As the hour nears for you to leave this world to join your loved ones in heaven, I have so many thoughts and emotions that I decided to try sorting them out through writing. Tonight I took several moments to quiet my soul, and I realized that until now I’ve not allowed myself to think about how much I will miss you. Though I’ve known you for less than two years, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know you. I was telling myself I won’t have a right to miss you like your sons, grandchildren, and other loved ones. I realize now that this was my way of avoiding my feelings of sadness around losing you. I know you wouldn’t want me to feel sad, but I have to honor these feelings because they’re real and I cannot just make them go away. I will tell you the same thing I told my mother when we knew she was on her way to the next world, “I will miss you, and I will think of you in your heavenly home, and love you always.”

Marie, you are such a beautiful soul. You have profoundly touched my life, as you have many others’ lives. You will live on in our memories, and I, for one, will cherish these as long as I am a pilgrim on this earth. I especially hold dear my memories of my “Thursdays with Marie.” Oh, the stories we shared with one another! I especially like the one of your ride down the mountain on the back of a motorcycle the night you were stranded because your car stalled out. You’d told yourself you weren’t going to get into just any car. I loved the sense of humor with which you told these stories.

The other night as I was thinking of you as I watched the magnificent sunset, with orange clouds spreading across the cobalt sky. There was a hole in one of the clouds with sunrays coming through, and I found myself contemplating the Mystery of the Great Beyond. It was a moment when there was but a thin veil between this world and the next. I imagine you are on the threshold between these two worlds.

When that veil is lifted, and you see your loved ones reaching out, I hope you can go in peace and know that you are in God’s Hands. May you be reunited with Ed, and all those family members and friends who have loved you from the heavens.

I know how you don’t want people to shed tears when you have left this world. To remind myself of that, I just re-read that poem you have tucked into the frame of the photo of Ed, “Do not Stand at My Grave and Weep.”

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die. — Mary Elizabeth Frye

As I read this, a tear slowly trickles down my cheek, and drips off my chin. I find shedding tears a natural part of grieving a loss, and losing you will be a profound loss, Marie. So I promise not to stand at your grave and weep, but when I miss your lovely Marie voice and your radiant smile, tears will be my healing balm.

Go in Peace, Marie. Know that your toil on this earth is at an end, and that you are leaving this world a better place because of all the love and kindness you have shown to others.

I will know you are with me when I feel an angel at my left shoulder, just the way you said you would visit me. When it’s my turn to make the transition between this world and the next, I hope you will be one of the angels who will come to meet me. I will know you by your smile.

Marie, I love you and I will miss you. May God be with you, until we meet again.

From the daughter of your heart,

Saloma

On July 13, Marie was able to leave this world, as she had been trying to do for days. I have gone through so many emotions since I heard. First came the relief of knowing that she was no longer suffering. I dropped off the keys at her apartment the other day, and I found stepping into her space and feeling her absence brought up the stark reality of knowing that I will never again see her radiant smile. I will never again hear her Marie voice. And I will never again feel her warm embrace. Oh, the bittersweet pain of this loss! I feel gratitude for the life lessons I learned from her; for the love we shared; and for the repair work I was able to do with my own mother through Marie’s love and understanding. But the deeper the love, the greater the loss.

As for the book: even when Marie was ill, she wanted to know of any progress I was making on finding an agent. I told her that I’ve been sending out query letters to literary agents for months, with no one saying yes. I can just hear what she said yet: “Don’t  get discouraged, and don’t you give up.” And so I won’t. With the angel at my left shoulder, I will move forward with confidence.

On Saturday, July 22, at 10 AM, there will be a memorial service for Marie at Amherst South Congregational Church. I’m sure it will be a full church, a testament to how many lives Marie has touched. I feel honored to count myself among them.

Photo by Saloma Furlong

I will think of Marie whenever I look to the heavens, especially when I see a beautiful sunset. It will be a reminder of the beauty of the sun setting on a life well lived.

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41 thoughts on “When the Sun Sets on a Life Well-Lived”

  1. I am thankful for the joy you had of knowing Marie! She sounds like a beautiful person! I have a friend Marie who is almost 20 years older than me and very young at heart! I became friends with her because she used to smile at me at church, never knowing that I was going through a hard time and needed her smile!

    1. Aleta, thank you for your Marie story. It is a wonderful blessing to be loved by women older than us, isn’t it? God Bless both our Maries.

      I hope you are doing well.

  2. This post deeply touches the heart. I love the photos you shared, especially the one of you two with your feet propped for it shows how comfortably you are with each other.

    1. Yes, this was our repose when we were together in my home. I used to feel guilty for sitting in the recliner, but it was hard for her to get out of it, and she loved that hickory rocker.

      I’m so glad you were touched, Katie. I’m sure someone could write these things about you, too. I cherish our friendship… I cherish you.

      God Bless you, Katie.

  3. Saloma, thank you for a beautifully expressed eulogy. It made me tear up; it reminded me of some losses of my own and the gratitude I still feel toward them. Sometimes pain is the barometer of one’s love.

    I’m glad you had/have a Marie in your life. May you have many more.

    Incidentally, seeing photos of the interior of your house made me recognize and remember the simplicity and clean lines of an Amish house!
    Elva

    1. Elva, thank you for your kind words. It helps to share this loss with all of you who know me through this blog. And thank you for your good wishes.

      Yes, my Amish background deeply influences the way I keep house. Every house we’ve lived in has been dubbed as “looking like an Amish house” even by my mother when I sent her pictures years ago.

      Gratitude is so important, and that is above all the others, the feeling I have about my relationship with Marie.

  4. Hi, Saloma,
    Catching up with you :-) What a wonderful heart letter to your friend, Marie. Though she has gone to heaven, the memory of her relationship to and with you will never leave, fade or wear out. I believe that God gives us these friendships to strengthen our lives and encourage us in our walk here on earth and death does not take that away. We give back what we get and no doubt, her wisdom that you share is already being an encouragement to others! Cherish your memories and those chapters you worked on together. Looking forward to your book and knowing the Mother of your heart has had influenced and/or encouraged you to write again will make it all the more special.

    I am very busy subbing by day during the school year and volunteering all summer at Bible Camp here in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains of NY. Keeping you and David, and your plans in prayer, as always.

    1. Peggy, thank you so much for your touching words. I am with you… I do think the Maries in our lives are here to strengthen and encourage us in this journey we call life. I am so grateful for this.

      Thank you for your good wishes. Nice to know you are so close by. I would love to get together with you!

      Blessings to you and your family.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story of the love and grace you shared with another. You have an angelic heart. I’m sure you blessed your friends life as much as she blessed yours. As always yours writings are heartfelt and pure.

    1. Suzanne, thank you for listening. I needed to tell someone about Marie, and I feel grateful that you all are reading this and offering your encouragement. I don’t know if her life was as enriched as mine was in knowing her, though, that is a comforting thought.

      Thank you for your compliments about my writing. The very thing she encouraged me to continue – my writing – is what is bringing me solace now. It helps to clarify my feelings and grieve the loss of her not being in this world.

      Thank you for your thoughts, Suzanne.

      1. Saloma please continue writing your story. I don’t know if you remember a few months back I shared with you my childhood experience. I know I have found comfort with your ability and strength in writing about yours and I’m sure others have too. You make a difference.

        1. Suzanne, thank you for reminding me that this was you. I was so moved by what you shared. There is nothing more gratifying for writers to know than knowing that we’ve made a difference. Thank you for your kindness in saying so.

          I wish you all God’s blessings in your own healing journey.

    1. Thank you, Michelle. I am grateful too. One day I said to Marie, “I think sometimes God means for two people to meet.” She finished my thought when she said, “And then they do.”

      Indeed and thank God.

  6. Oh, Saloma. Your words have truly touched me. Losing someone so precious and close to you is indeed bittersweet; knowing that one fine day in Heaven we will all be reunited but at the same time feeling the profound emptiness that was once their presence. God brought you two together in this lifetime for a special reason and I am so sincerely glad that you shared these moments together and created those memories.
    I am praying for you, Saloma and I am so very sorry for your loss.

    Blessings.

    1. Shana, thank you for your kind thoughts and prayers. I believe that, too… that God brought us together for a reason.

      Thank you for reading this and for “listening” so well.

      Blessings to you as well.

  7. Sadie Showalter

    This is such a touching post about your relationship with Marie. How lovely that you could be “mothered” in a way never experienced before. In the last year with writing and some other help I became aware of how I have taken care of so many persons but who has taken care of me?

    Hope you find a publisher soon!

    1. Oh, Sadie, I know that feeling you’re talking about. I came to that realization some years ago in therapy. Being loved by Marie was so healing. I hope you find a Marie in your life. A huge hug to you. Know that you are loved.

      Thank you for your good wishes on the publisher. I hope so too!

      I wish you all the best with your writing process. Blessings to you, Sadie!

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful, poignant story of Marie. We all realize that life on this earth is not everlasting, but it still hurts when someone we love leaves us “for a better place”. At an early age I started thinking about this “pain” I was feeling and realized that the pain we feel isn’t for “losing” the other person, but rather it is our “pain” be it physical, psychological or both. The best way I can explain it is that it’s like a surgery of the heart. A good chunk or piece of your heart is wrenched out of your body. Like any surgery it is going to take a long time to repair and heal itself, it HURTS, but eventually the horrible pain subsides. The bad part is that this happens EVERY time we lose a loved one. Some times it seems like they are the ones who take that large piece of your heart with them as a spiritual connection. Many times this pain in our hearts will leave us with a dull ache, almost like an amputated limb, that will never go away.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to ramble on. Please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you.

    1. Kris, thank you for your thoughts. I know that eventually this pain will lessen eventually, but it is fresh right now, and it does feel like a piece of my heart is gone… that is a good way to describe it.

      Thank you for your thoughts and prayers.

  9. Saloma, what a touching part of your life, for such a very short time. I feel amazed that God sent Marie into your life to help heal from Mem. This part of your blog stands out to me: “One day, towards the end of the book, I told her how much it means to me that I have this mother-love from her because I felt that she loved me for exactly who I am. She hesitated a moment and then said, “Excuse me Saloma, but that is the way it should have been your whole life!” I just sat there and cried.”

    I appreciate that you let us enter into another of your life events. As I have said, your life is more interesting than a well written novel.

    1. Denise, that was one of the most moving moments of my relationship with Marie. Good to know it moved you, too.

      How kind of you to say that about my life. I often have to pause and feel gratitude and joy for everything that my life is. I have been fortunate in so many ways.

  10. Weren’t you blessed to come in contact with a real life angel, such a gift. Angels transforms us and transforms themselves (lingering butterly, sunsets, etc.), they never truly leave. The sadness in your heart will soon be replace with the gladness she touched your life, however short.
    If you had teceived the Fulbrigh, the possibility your paths may never have crossed and you would have missed the opportunity of spending quality time with her. There’s reasons for everything, just not always apparent at the time. Aways other opportunities for a Fulbright but your time with Marie – transforming and priceles
    ps. She was blessed to have you as a friend, your love and to part of your new journey/passion.

    1. Lynne, I was indeed blessed to know Marie. I never thought about the what-if of having gotten the Fulbright and never been able to know Marie on such a deep level.

      As I mentioned above, it is a comforting thought that she was as blessed as I by our relationship.

      Thank you for your kind thoughts.

      1. It usually isn’t clear at the moment, but there is a greater plan and there is a reason for evertthing. Breathe and ask for clarity. If it’s meant to be it will happen (not necassarily on the timeline of your choosing), if not be prepated for a different great gift/blessing…if you believe and have faith, what you need (vs desire/want) will be provided.
        Know whatever journey you embark on, Marie is with you, guiding and sending her love.

  11. I am sorry for your loss, Saloma. When I was a young woman in my twenties, I thought that if someone was old (over 40, right?) and died, that was not really sad. It was only sad if someone young died. I am not sure when I had the epiphany, but I do remember that it was a stark one. No matter how elderly someone is, when they leave, we miss them. We can be relieved that they are not suffering, but we are nonetheless.

    I am glad you had such a warm, rich friendship, and that you were able to enjoy a lot of good times together before she left.

    1. Thank you, Donna, for your thoughts. I had that sense when I was young, too. How our perspective does change as we age!

      Yes, I’m glad, too, that we those times together. It’s what makes this loss so bittersweet.

      Blessings to you, and thank you for your comments.

  12. Dear Saloma: I’m so sorry for the loss of your dear friend. May her memory be a blessing and comfort to you. Sincerely, Christine

  13. I share your pain…I also see where your life was made richer through her friendship. A pearl is a healed wound; tears are healing…so as the tears cleanse the wound may God’s love heal & bring forth the pearl that is within you. Hugs….

  14. I am so glad God gave you Marie, even for a short time. She was His gift to you. I know your heart will grieve heavily, until you are united again. God bless you and hold you close to Him. I’m just so thankful that you had Marie, and were able to heal many places in your heart. Now there are other places hurting. Words are so insufficient, and they are failing me anyway. You brightened Marie’s final days, and she brightened yours. God bless and comfort you.

  15. pamela lakits

    I have not been able to check e-mails for quit a while and so just read your blog on Marie. What a gift God gave you in this beautiful woman. A mother figure to help you find your way in writing your book about your relationship with your own mother. God is so good. I am sorry for your loss. She reminds me so much of my Aunt Ruth. She is the last living sibling of my father’s (there were eight)and including all the spouses. She is the light of our family and has a faith like no one I know and is so very humble about it. She is tiny, soft spoken and funny and I will miss her dearly when it’s her time to go home to the Lord. Saturday is my 57th birthday. When I have my morning prayer time and I am thanking him for all the blessings he has given me in these 57 years I will also be praying for you. I will thank him for giving you this special friendship and pray your sorrow will not be to difficult to bear as you say your final goodbye.

    1. Pamela, as always, it is so good to receive your insightful and caring comments. Indeed God is good! Marie also reminds me of a Ruth I knew… David’s mother. I loved her so much! I am so glad you have a Ruth or Marie in your life… what a blessing! I’m sure you will cherish the time you have left with your Aunt Ruth in this world.

      Thank you so much for your prayers, Pamela. It means more than I can say…

      Blessings to you and your family!

  16. Pingback: About Amish | When Creativity Takes a Sharp Turn

  17. Saloma while reading this I was able to feel your friendship and emotions attached with Marie. I was feeling so happy and at the same time sad. I was feeling happy and thankful to God that God sends nice people on earth to love us and nice people like you to recognize that love. I was sad for your loss. But I know as you said she is looking at you just from the other side of the beautiful veil. While reading I was also feeling the love and affection of Marie. What a magic of love it is.

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