The Grace of a Happy Death: Mary Louise Birmingham, 1921-2011

June 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments
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In my childhood parochial school, the Sisters taught us to pray for “the grace of a happy death,” by which they meant that we should die in the state of grace. No sins on our souls.

Like many other things, the notion of  “happy death” seems to have gotten more complicated as I get older. But I’m pretty sure I have just been part of one, so I want to tell you about it.

Last Friday (June 24th) my dear friend Mary Louise Birmingham died. In August, Mary Louise would have celebrated her 90th birthday, and she and I had been friends for 40 years, more or less. She lived in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan, with her husband Bill, and had five grown children and eight grandchildren, whom she adored. We were both members of the Grail, an international women’s movement, and had met one another at the Grail’s national center outside Cincinnati where we were participating in some program or other in the late 1960s or early 197os.

Now you may think that there’s nothing very remarkable about an almost ninety-year-old woman dying, but that would be to overlook the fact that Mary Louise had been in good health, and was amazingly engaged in life, until two months ago. When I fell and broke my wrists in mid-April, she came out here to Flatbush on the subway bringing me practical things like applesauce and moist-wipes, and cheering me no end with her presence. Mary Louise had in fact visited me when I was sick any number of times over the years. We were going to attend an introduction to birdwatching workshop together on May 21 in Prospect Park but she cancelled because she was “tired.”

I should have known something was up. Increasing exhaustion and some other symptoms led her to the doctor, and on June 6 Mary Louise was diagnosed with acute leukemia. The standard treatment is chemotherapy, but the majority of people over 80 who have that treatment die from it. Mary Louise had herself worked as a hospice nurse for twenty years and so knew better; she wisely chose to spend the time remaining at home with family and friends. The doctors said she might have seven or eight weeks to live, but she died much sooner than that, less than three weeks after her diagnosis.

So why do I consider this a “happy death”? I was blessed to be able to visit Mary Louise three times after her diagnosis, and her utter peace and even joy in the face of her impending death was an enormous gift to me. I might add that my own parents died over several years, never referring in my presence to the fact that their lives were ending, and making absolutely no preparations for such an eventuality. So to see someone of their generation dying without regret or denial, and without burdening her family and friends with such regrets, was an amazing gift.

I also thought that the timing of my friend’s death was almost perfect. Some people of course drop dead or die in their sleep without any warning. And others die over months or even years, as my parents did. Who’s to say if they have any say in choosing such an approach? But my friend lived long enough for her family and friends to smile at her, to kiss her, to say good-bye. When I visited her apartment in her final weeks, Mary Louise’s husband and whichever kids and grandkids were there at the time welcomed me warmly into their loving network of support.  It almost felt like a holiday, albeit one tinged with sadness. We should all be so fortunate.

This afternoon, I am off to Mary Louise’s memorial service, at Tibet House, in Manhattan. Perhaps you will join with me and her family and other friends as we hold her in the light.

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10 Comments »

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  1. Thank you for sharing your very moving experience, Marian.

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  2. Thank you, Marian, for giving me and many others the opportunity to feel closer to Mary Louise and her life. To be so fully conscious entering into the mystery of life and death ……. I want to sign up for that expereince.
    Lenie Schaareman

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  3. Marian
    I believe this is the first time I have opened your blog . I was so moved when I saw that Mary Louise had died that I HAD to stop my usual BUSY-NESS and do something meaningful.Oddly, though I had little contact with Mary Louise, I felt very connected to her. The reason: she was one of the wonderful women chosen to support me in my Grail participation group. I met each time in her apartment in NYC
    and Bill made bread and Mary Louise soup or some other delicious lunch. It was a very precious time for me filled with kindness and affirmation and especially meaningful for me because having the meetings in the home of this loving couple was a special gift for one who had not grown up with a mother and father
    at the meal table. Somehow their home represented an element of which I was in sore need. I always had this deep sense of ML’s goodness. I am not surprised to hear
    of the depth of her peacefulness as she left this home to share life even more deeply with all whom she loved so much. I shall hold her memory in my heart es-pecially in these days as I too face more clearly the realization that “each night
    our days are diminished by one” and we move closer to the ALL.
    Blessing s and love to you.
    Patricia Plouffe St. Onge

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  4. Marian,There is a beautiful synergy evoked when one wonderful person speaks about another wonderful person. Your comments teach, not preach, honor, not exhalt both Mary Louise and a ‘happy death’.
    Thank you for your words.
    Judy Alves

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  5. Thanks, Marian, for this lovely tribute. Though I didn’t get to know them deeply, I have heard remarkable tales of Mary Louise and Bill, living out their commitment to each other, to the Spirit and to life. Your post and the comments it has stimulated are testament to a full life, well lived and blessing many others along the way. I hope that her visits also helped you in your healing process.

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  6. Marian, thanks for sharing your thoughts about Mary Louise. I’ve never met her but she has been a person I admired over the years. Your comments about how she accepted death are lovely to think about. Hope you are doing well. Lyllis

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  7. Marian, I join the chorus thanking you for writing about Mary Louise. I never met her, though I often heard her name from Joy, Dorothy, and Eileen Schaeffler. Your tribute makes me sad that I never had that privilege. It also touches me because my own mother is going through a long diminishment and takes no pleasure in the life she still has. What a gift to think about a “happy death.”

    Hope you are all healed and having a productive and happy summer.
    Carol

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  8. Marian, I don’t live in your area, so didn’t know Mary Louise, but your topic greatly interests me since in the three months and 10 days between my husband’s diagnosis he had inoperable cancer of the spine and the date of his death, January 3, 2009, he and I and our friends spoke openly about it. One of my students created a blog where my letters to family and friends reporting on his painful and challenging but extraordinarily beautiful journey, (esp at the end,) are posted: http://www.elaineandfrancis.blogspot.com
    Elaine

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  9. Correction: Francis died 3 days into 2010, not in 2009. Elaine

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  10. Dear Marian,
    Thanks for sharing the warmth of your friendshiip with Mary Louise as you told of her last days. Don’t we all hope to have a loving family member usher us into the bedroom of a friend so that we may say “goodbye and thanks”. Not only did I feel closer to Mary Louise who I knew only from a distance but I felt grateful for the Grail where it is possible to feel known by so many wonderful women and to be able to share the joys and sorrows of one another’s lives. Know that I am also with you in prayer for your wrists. I had some hard times with one a few years ago. I recommend lots of exercise for them and yoga when you are ready. It definitely protected me from complications lo these
    past 10 years! Nancy

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