Penny’s Gift

Reposted from Oct 2011

Eleven years ago my close friend Penny Johnston died of ovarian cancer after a long and epic battle that left many of her friends and health providers stunned and profoundly affected. I lost a treasured confidante – a woman to whom I had turned many times in the twenty-one years of our friendship. In her final hours she offered me an opening to the divine and the gift of timelessness that I have experienced ever since.

We met as young mothers of toddlers in a parent cooperative preschool as her son Marc careened into my son Nathan. It was Marc’s way of saying hello….one I’m not sure Nathan ever quite understood nor my daughter Joanna who met Marc’s bother Andy similarly three years later…the same preschool and the same form of greeting. Both times I remember Penny’s exasperated look and sigh of resignation! Within minutes of the first crash Penny muttered the words that in frustration I had felt many times in raising my 2 year old. She said, “I am not sure I am cut out for this.” We both loved our children more that everything and then some, but she expressed in those few words the doubt and reality of being a professional woman reduced to helplessness by a child a third your size. We were in a group where these sentiments were not spoken as “good mom’s” wouldn’t have such feelings. Years later as we both pursued satisfying careers and celebrated successful children we would pause in wonder at how many of our mom’s group went on to have 4 and 5 children! Our journeys were similar in sadnesses growing up, parenting challenges and celebrations, and much more. Both of our marriages were in distress. She stayed in hers, I left mine.

After the preschool years we didn’t see each other that often, 3 or 4 times a year. Each connection was rich in intimacy and deep understanding. I often wondered if our paths had crossed in another time. She fed me tunafish sandwiches during the painful year of my contentious divorce which she deemed my “ghostly” year… I lost great amounts of weight, often could not keep food down, had great memory lapses, and lost all color literally and figuratively. As I recovered and launched my career as a hospice social worker Penny returned to teaching and became a deeply respected debate coach winning nationally with her team. Her high school students adored her. We saw each other less frequently but remained the kind of friends who pick up right where they had left off months ago. Whenever I was undecided about anything Penny was who I called. She was a practical, no nonsense, direct, “this is what you should do” kind of person!

The tables turned way too soon as we had our usual holiday “girl’s night dinner” and she mentioned an upcoming doctor’s appointment. It was the worst reality….advanced ovarian cancer. I referred her to Spokane’s best oncologist and the fight of a lifetime ensued. She and her mom did this battle together and Penny distanced somewhat from me. I understood at a cellular level that this was because I represented hospice and dying.

She would call with a question now and then, and asked at one very painful and discouraged time if I would see that she died comfortably in hospice care if it came to that. Everything they tried for and with Penny went bad. She suffered enormously, stoically and absolutely without complaint. I joined Penny and her mom in Seattle for one more clinical trial and a stem cell transplant that nearly killed her. She was a walking zombie who had no memory of the “months from hell” as I deemed it.

During this fight when everyone agreed it was over, Penny prevailed. She achieved an amazing capacity to coach debate when she could barely stand up. She declared herself queen of hats when she had no hair. She always looked glorious…her spirit trumping the physical every time. She became a bunco nut. Penny insisted I come right away the day her new “fuzz” hair was established enough for public view. I had never felt anything so soft. We cried and laughed at the same time. She willed herself to be escorted down the aisle at Marc’s wedding. She went to a rock concert with Andy and his friends 2 months before her death right after successfully accomplishing an ocean kayak trip because she wanted to. She defied odds and kept going…vomiting 3 to 4 times a day, enduring unbelievable pain, and refusing tubes and hospitalizations.

Penny called one day for me to come. She looked like a ghost with the exception of her eyes which had a depth I had experienced only rarely over my 14 years of hospice work. I would call them “the eyes of God.” Never had I witnessed this in someone so agitated by unremitting pain. She was in agony and asked “will you be on my hospice team?” The referral was not an easy one because Penny insisted on continuing her parenteral nutrition. To my absolute horror this slowed down my agency’s response time. Penny and I had to manage alone an endless weekend of torture. It was an eternity of my begging for high powered pain medications and home administration in a fragmented system with an unknown doctor on call who couldn’t understand Penny’s refusal to endure another tube or to come to a hospital emergency room. I became a banshee and we muddled through.

With Monday came the return of her doctor, the late arrival of a hospice team, enough medication for pain relief and my immediate awareness that Penny was in her final hours. It was she and I in the bedroom where purgatory had been visited just the day before. She was calm, coherent, and beaming. The sun streamed through the window and time dissolved. I told her that her body was changing and she smiled in acknowledgement. No fear, no urgency, no requests. We laughed about the day Marc careened into Nathan. I promised that someday I would tell her grandchildren about her. We cried and laughed at the same time. It wasn’t sadness…it just was. Spirit expanded and soul filled the room. We shared an eternal space and kairos….and it was fine. At some point Penny’s mom and Andy came and Penny asked me to go tell Joni (her oncologist and by this time great friend.) I did her bidding knowing neither Joni nor I would return in time for her death.

From that morning spent with Penny I have experienced a timelessness that is the most extraordinary gift. Everyone says “time goes by so fast” and they mean it. This use to be my experience… but it changed that day. I don’t experience time as moving quickly and often I don’t experience chronological time at all. I feel depth to the moments I am in …. finding they are as full as I care to experience them. It makes memory difficult for me because apparently this capacity for full experience takes brain space! I guess I just don’t mark time in a way that triggers remembering in sequence.

This gift of timelessness came through Penny’s eyes. They were a luminous source of compassion, serenity and hope for both of us. Thank you, dear friend, for your grace and elegance.