FROM THE VAULT: ONE DYING DAY IN THE CIRCLE OF LIFE 1994
My cousin Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 1992. At first she and I talked about cancer simply as a bump in the road. I promised her I would send her a postcard every Friday until she was cancer free. Some 70 Fridays – 70 postcards later – she was gone. Eventually I bound her life together as best I could remember in story and song in something I called “One Dying Day in the Circle of Life” I will be including part of the story and some of the songs in Songs and Stories from Home.
Jane was my cousin and my friend. Like so many others who were touched by her life, my life is richer and finer for having known her.
I miss her. I miss her energy, her unpredictability, her laughter, the depth of her insight, her irreverence (especially to things she found irrelevant), and her quirky faith that life is a big thing understood in small ways reflected in little things.
She shared her pain, her humor, her searching, and her questions as openly, articulately, and completely as anyone I have met. Among her gifts, she had the ability to see and understand what might be called the essence of life. She was not afraid to explore the depths to which that understanding took her, both before and after she discovered her cancer. She demanded that those around her pay attention to that life, to their own lives, to her life, and to the life we form together.
One gift Jane was not given was the gift of longevity. To those she touched, and for those she embraced, however, our lives were changed forever. This story is dedicated to kids, those two great and tangible gifts to the continuing circle of life.
So much of life is made up of circles. There are natural circles. Every day the earth turns once. Once that circle is complete, it begins anew. Everything different while all so much the same. Every three hundred and sixty-five days (or so) the earth goes one time around the sun. The earth finishes the old circle and begins a new. So much like the one before and yet all so unique.
So much of my life with Jane was made up of circles. There is the love and life that she encircled me with. There are the embraces that she held me in. There were the frequent family circles that we made as part of an extended family. And during many holidays, we held hands and sang or said prayers, grateful to be together and for the time that we were sharing.
There was the circle that family and friends made on Jane's wedding day as she and David stood on the lawn of her parents' home on a heated August day and proclaimed their love.
There is a drawing that Jane gave me. One of its main features: people holding hands as they encircle the earth.
There were a number of walks that Jane and I took from her house during the Christmas holidays. We would circle the neighborhood, returning soon to where we began. We entered the door that we left from. Our lives fuller for and from the sharing.
After she died, there was the circle that family and friends made around the grave sight. There was the larger semi circle of those at the memorial service.
And there was also the circle that was made around Jane and her bed shortly after she died. It is that circle and the day that surrounds it that forms the shape and the structure of this story.
On Thursday morning, March 24 in 1994, at approximately 8:40 AM, Jane Elizabeth Thysell Groth died. Ten weeks shy of her 41st birthday, she had lost her seventeen month battle with breast cancer. With care from family, friends, and the hospice program, she was home and in her own bed when her life ended.
After spending the previous afternoon with Jane, I had come again to sing songs for her and, one last time, to say good-bye. It was clear by the look on everyone's face, as I arrived a little before 9, that the moment we had expected but no one could prepare for had arrived. I stood for a moment in my own shocked silent sorrow.
"Would you like to see her?" someone asked
I walked the hallway to her bedroom. Jane lay still in her bed. After taking a moment to hold her hand, to brush her hair, and to tell her I loved her, I felt a need for something more. Anything that might prolong and give meaning to this moment between living and dying. Perhaps to sing to her one final time. It was as if everyone in the house had similar needs.
So it was fourteen of us filled the small bedroom, formed an awkward circle around Jane, and began to sing. We sang old hymns and songs that we had sung around a thousand campfires. I sang songs I had written for her over the years.
We sang and we sobbed and we said good-bye. While we each had our own thoughts and special feelings about Jane, we were very much together and part of something bigger than any one of us…than all of us. Standing together at that moment at a place where life was meeting death. We sensed the line between darkness and light. We felt for a moment that place where heaven and earth are joined.
Without looking we also found somewhere where the lines between people's souls and beings were blurred. For a moment we stood not as individuals but as a congregation of spirit. That singular spirit joined with the spirit that was, and is, forever Jane. We surrounded her breathless body in a circle of life. She filled that circle, and all that were in it, with something more than had been there a moment before.
It is an experience that I will never forget, and yet, because I struggle to find the words to describe it, I don’t quite know how to remember it.
This story will attempt to find some words. Words that would hope to portray a part of Jane’s completed and unfinished life. Words to describe the inevitability of death as well as the certainty of the circle of life.
It was one of Jane's great fears that people would remember her simply as someone who had cancer. She was so many other things. For nearly forty years, anything but someone who had cancer. As well as someone who battled her disease with dignity, I will remember Jane as someone who was curious, caring, challenging, and cancer free.
STORY BEHIND THE SONG: WITH ME WHEREVER I GO
I spent the spring of 1993 writing songs that I called Songs for a Season. “With Me Wherever I Go” was one of the songs. I wrote it for Jane and sang it publicly for the first time that fall at a concert in Seattle. Jane was there. She had finished her treatments that included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. After what she describe as being cut, poisoned, and burned. she was considered cancer free and everyone was hopeful.
The song was part of her memorial in March of 1994. That June I was asked to sing at an event at Seattle Children’s Hospital where kids who died are honored and remembered. At that remembrance I sang “With Me Wherever I Go” along with a song I wrote called “The Missing Peace.” The gathering is an annual event that I was honored to be part of for more than twenty years.