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,
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.