Living life to its fullest

September 23, 1994|By Charles A. Wunder

IT WOULD be a stretch to say she took to dying with enthusiasm, but for someone 46 with seven nearly adult children, she never spent a minute in denial.

After they had chopped on her colon and put her through a month of chemotherapy, she returned to her kitchen and continued to make spaghetti sauce from the ground up. No Ragu, thank you. Grace was said before meals and God help the kid who lifted a fork before the amen.

Fran's house was a poorly controlled explosion. She lived the wisdom that a neat home was the work of a dull woman. Half-finished books spilled from the end table onto the couch and the coffee table was ringed with memories of cups, glasses and conversations.

In the corner of the dining room, an old upright vacuum cleaner waited for the call that seldom came. It was enough for Fran that the potential for a neat house existed.

Her hair loss was almost complete. The blond fuzz that survived the chemical on slaught wasn't thick enough to hide her pink scalp, and -- more to shift the focus of people's eyes than for personal vanity -- she bought two wigs, equally grotesque. The blond bouffant one was a Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine look, and the short, strawberry one reminded me of Orphan Annie without the dog.

She greeted friends visiting her home by doffing her wig to "top of the morn" and bragged how she would never have Alzheimer's disease or need a pedicure in a nursing home. As the disease ravaged her body and her weight fell, she would occasionally look down at her chest and say: "I never did have big boobs but this is ridiculous!"

Near the end, I think she sensed her foxhole humor was embarrassing people and she turned more serious. After dinner while the others were inside, probably happy to escape the constant reminder of the slow farewell, we would sit on her porch sipping B&B's, and discuss how dying made her sensitive to the rhythms in nature. She'd talk about seeing the first fall flight of Canadian geese light on the river and how it took a death sentence to transform the mundane into the marvelous. Spider webs catching the morning sun could sire an enthusiasm formerly reserved for recipes or off-color jokes.

She died in a hospice at 2 one morning. The day before, we -- her loved ones and friends -- were there most of the day, hovering around her bed, talking among ourselves and trying to break through to her. At 7 that night, we sent out for pizza. The Domino's driver came with three big boxes and two six packs of Cokes.

He stopped at the room's threshold, his eyes searching for someone to free him from the situation. I gave him the fattest tip he'd ever received and put the boxes in a corner on the floor. In 10 minutes, the pepperoni and green peppers had driven out the antiseptic smell and Fran's dying became our second most pressing concern.

Her youngest son opened the top box and withdrew a slice of the now nearly cold pizza. Soon soda cans fizzed open, napkins and pizza slices were passed around. Her husband offered her the last slice; his voice cracking when he said it was "one for the road."

Two nurses came in and asked that we leave for a few minutes while they washed her and adjusted the bed linen. At about 9 we gave up the wait and each went over to the bed, squeezed her hand, cried a little and went home.

The nurse called at 3 a.m.

Charles A. Wunder writes from Baltimore.

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