Fran's Story: On Living and Dying

"However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all..."
Ecclesiastes 11:8

Sometimes a friendship defies convention, or, at least, makes one wonder if convention is for suckers.

Fran is an 89-year-old friend of mine who I met nearly a decade ago after she moved to Rochester, MN to be close to her daughter, Pat, who I worked with at the time.

It was last January that I went to visit Fran in the hospital. Things weren't looking good and I had come to say the things a person says as part of their final farewells. Fran has spoken into my life for no other reason other than she cares. She isn't family, but she sees something good in me that I don't see myself. 

Fran pulled through but has struggled since and a couple of months ago started hospice care. I've been able to visit her and a few days ago I went to see her again...

A cheerful looking 20-something care aid greeted me at the door along with two basset hounds who flew right past me and out into the front yard. The aid's unruly red hair was secured in a ponytail. It was easy to tell the color of her hair wasn't from a bottle like mine. I go through a lot of money to get my hair that shade and part of me always resents natural red-heads.

As I walked into the foyer, Sammy (as I discovered was the aid's name), indicated Fran was in the family room. 

She was cozied up in a recliner buried under a blanket with her iPad resting in her lap as she greeted me with a smile. We exchanged our pleasantries and settled in for our visit.

"Fran, can I ask you some questions that might be a little tough?" I asked.

"Try me," she dared.

"How are you feeling these days?"

"I feel fine. I just can't die." At that, we both laughed.

"Well, it's true," she added.

"So, you don't mind talking about death, then?" I asked.

"Oh, heaven's no. When Pat brought me here [to Pat's home], I don't think she had any idea that I was gonna be here this long. I was supposed to be gone a long time ago."

"How does it feel to wait to die?" I asked cautiously.

"I wish it would hurry up and happen," she said assuredly. 

"Do you have any fear?" I asked assuming she would offer some insight. 

"No. I just want to get out of here."

"So, you have a peace about it?" I redirected.

"Yeah," she responded softly, "what God wants, God will do. He's just not listening to me. I tell him to take me home, but He just sticks his tongue out at me." 

I changed course a little bit, "Fran, what is the first thing you think of when you think of your childhood?

It didn't take her long to respond. "Oh, I'm an only child, so my cousins from my one aunt were my siblings, you know. They actually lived with my mother at one point, some of them, because my aunt was widowed and had to work. They became like siblings, but without the fighting." 

"Did you get into any mischief?" I asked with a bit of a grin.

"No, I was the ideal child - 'Miss Goodie-Two-Shoes,'" she said as she pursed her lips and lifted her nose. "That's my version, anyway."

"Do you remember anything specific you did for fun?"

"Oh, I had lots of fun. Uh...well, let's go back. I had a very good friend at the other end of the block where we lived."

She paused to collect her memories and then continued,"The most memorable part of that friendship was when she told me there was no Santa Claus. Her family was poor and she and I both wanted the same thing for Christmas. I got one and she didn't. In order to make her feel better about not getting what we did, her parents told her they were Santa Claus. I also remember that after school, we would go to one another's house to play. Whenever she came to my house, my mother would give us homemade cookies or some snack. When we'd go to her house the snack would be a piece of bread with butter and sugar sprinkled over the top since her mother didn't bake."

"Funny how we remember food, isn't it?"  I asked. "Do you remember what the gift was that you got but she didn't?"

"A doll buggy. It was a big doll buggy. We both got the doll the year before, but this year I got the carriage and she didn't. It's one of those old fashioned wicker ones. Pat still has it somewhere. She used to put plants in it." 

"Well, now it's gonna be a family heirloom!" I wondered if the family had ever heard the story of the doll buggy as I continued with my questions.

"What has been the best part of your life?"

I asked this question even though I knew Fran would struggle with an answer. She doesn't feel as if her life has had any meaningful significance; however, I desperately wish her to see that her life has been a tremendous blessing to many.

Finally, she responded and her answer was like stepping back into another time and place. 

"People....Walt, of course, and the children. My cousins, too. The oldest of my aunt's four kids was already grown, married and moved away, so I didn't know him as well. The second oldest was in the army through WWII. When he got back he married the girlfriend that wrote to him all through the war. The two girls were the youngest two and one of them got married and the other one had had polio when she was maybe seven or eight years old. I remember driving up to the Shriner's Hospital to visit her. One leg never did recover, so she always had a brace on that leg. She was six years older than I, but was the closest thing to having a sister. Her name was Barbara."

 One of the reasons I believe Fran has defied the odds. Nothing beats the love of a good dog.

One of the reasons I believe Fran has defied the odds. Nothing beats the love of a good dog.

"What are you glad to have done in life?" I asked as an extension on my previous question.

"Live." She laughed at that. Her response sounded more sarcastic than profound which is probably why we get along so well.

Then she continued, "That and marry the man I married. He was a great fellow, but I came in second to his work. Most people would have said, 'Oh, you've had an ideal life.' He was a very ambitious man. Not just work, but for the church, as well. In the last six years of his life, his list of ambitions were to write a novel; which, he did, and to write a technical book; which, he didn't get to finish before he died. 

"I didn't know he'd written a novel!" I said with surprise.

"Oh, Pat's got it. He self-published and sold I don't know how many copies."

"What's it about?" I inquired.

"It's about the off-shore oil industry and a man who worked on a rig. It's called, The Tale of the Running Tide, or something like that. It doesn't rival Hemingway, but it satisfied his desire to write a book." She stated matter-of-factly.

"Some would call that Walt's bucket list...do you have a bucket list?" I asked her.

"No, Fran said," I did what came along. I'm most thankful that I was able to see every one of my grandchildren within the first week of their lives and was able to help after they were born. I wouldn't have done anything different." 

"What advice would you give me? A woman in middle life, with kids and work..." I knew it was another difficult question for Fran, but I asked anyway.

"Oh, heavens. I don't have any advice other than to enjoy life. I've lived, really, an enjoyable life. Walt and I lived all over the country and in each place, we were able to establish good friendships with great people. I think I've lost all of them by now." She said with a hint of sadness.

Then, she continued without prompting, "One of the most enjoyable times in life was living close to Pat's school when she was in college. She went to Westminster Choir College. She and her friends would come over and have dinner or swim. I always told them they had to buy their dinner by singing or playing the piano or whatever their specialty was. That was lots of fun. 

It was the perfect lead-in to my next question, "Speaking of music, I know your favorite piece is Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." 

"Yes," she interjected, "his 18th variation."

"Your eyes just lit up when I said that." Her face also brightened with a smile. "What happens when you hear that melody?"

"Oh, it's just so beautiful and unique. I remember how I got to know it. In my college dorm, there was a young man that would walk by our dorm room whistling the melody. One of my friends went down and stopped him in order to find out what it was. It ended up being the Variation on a Theme."

She continued, "I don't have a musical background, but my father loved music. He had a violin and he liked to play 'Alice Blue Gown.' He liked when I'd play that on the piano so he could play his violin with me." 

{footnote: I had never heard "Alice Blue Gown," but a quick search on youTube remedied that. Enjoy this version by Judy Garland.}

I shifted gears again, "I see you have your iPad, what book are you reading?"

"Right now, I'm reading trash, or maybe a better word would be fluff." She said with an air of dismissal.

"Hey, who cares, right?"  I joked. "Life's pretty short at this point, so read whatever you'd like."

Fran laughed, "Yeah. Have you heard of Rita Mae Brown? Sneaky Pie Brown is her cat. It's, as I say, fluff, but, I have read some good books, too. I'm a big Chiaverini fan. I've read 3 or 4 of hers. It's a good distraction." 

Without skipping a beat, Fran proceeded, "So, what else can I enlighten you on?"

I went with it. "Huh...well, tell me, what do you think death will be like, and what do you think awaits you?

Her response came decisively, "I don't expect anything specific. Whatever it is, I'm ready for it." She paused thoughtfully, "You know, I don't know that I believe that I'm gonna see my husband again. I don't think that's necessarily true. Of course, I don't know what that life will be like, but I don't expect it to just resume where we left off. What is...is what is." There didn't seem to be any question of Fran's belief.

"For me, I told her, "fear would be an obstacle, I think. You don't seem to carry an ounce of fear with you." I brought the conversation back to fear for some reason. Maybe because that seems like the most natural response to death.

"No. What's to fear?"

I answered her question with a question, "The unknown, perhaps?"

"Well, all you have to do is accept whatever will be."

I had to pause for a moment and take in what Fran said. It wasn't what she said exactly, but the fact that there sat a frail and feeble woman, unable to stand on her own, who was facing death, nay welcoming death, with astounding grace, dignity, and strength and without a lick of fear. 

Maybe that's because she has lived a good life. A quiet life dedicated to family and friends. A simple life of faith dedicated to others. A life that, after she passes, won't be marked with a grand parade, but there will be those who will miss her dearly and who's ripples of love will be felt for years. Heaven will throw a party, for sure.

Oh, if we could all be so lucky. 

{Update: Fran, passed away on December 28, 2016. Her life was celebrated with a beautiful memorial. She will be greatly missed.}