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Lois Polson BanisJanuary 25, 1947 —September 30, 2002
Last WordsIn three weeks, it will be 34 years ago that I had an arranged blind date with a girl from Wyoming.
Lois was warned ahead of time that she "wouldn't like this guy" and that she should avoid talking about religion and politics. Of course, we did talk about the forbidden topics. We didn't hit it off right away, but, for some reason, I called my mother and told her I had just been on a blind date with this girl from Wyoming who reminded me somewhat of my sister.
And we went out again. And again...
And so it came to pass that the Catholic boy from New York, raised with an Augustinian education, married the Lutheran girl from Wyoming.
The original blind date was arranged by my roommate and a friend of Lois' who has felt so guilty about the outcome that she has never communicated with us again.
We moved to North Carolina and lived in a mobile home park while Lois taught high school and I finished graduate school.
I remember a garden along the concrete patio where Lois planted some bulbs in the fall so they would brighten our lot when they emerged in the Spring. She carefully dug little holes to the right depth and then carefully placed each bulb pointed side down before the first frost. Only later did she find out that she had very carefully placed every one of the bulbs upside down.
But in the spring after Andrea was born, as things are wont to do in nature, every single bulb grew upward toward the sun and came through, persevering through adversity to burst through to the light.
In time, there was a second daughter, Lauren. Our two beautiful daughters blossomed to adulthood, we added a great son-in-law in Andy Howell, and a grandchild is due in March. We shared these years with friends in Raleigh, Boston, Kankakee and St. Louis. Good friends came to visit and help out during the hard times, like Sandy and Larry Nims. Every one impressed some lasting effect on us as we lived through years of joy and persisted through some times of adversity.
Two and a half years ago, we learned about leukemia, and we entered into a dark tunnel, not knowing—and fearing—what would happen before we could emerge again into the light. There were still moments of brightness and times of joy as, during a remission, Lois returned to teach the young adults she loved at Whitfield School. The generosity of a bone marrow donor we have never met gave another six months of life and time to see the beginnings of our grandchild.
I can't say adequately in words how important was the warm support of friends, Church and Whitfield School Communities that helped carry us through times of darkness: like the friendship quilt from Whitfield Faculty and Staff that Lois kept around her during chemotherapy; the beautiful calligraphy of Rita Foltz; the meaningful small treasures, such as helium balloons sent to the hospitals, because she couldn't have the flowers she loved during chemotherapy; the butterfly garden planted by Mary Jane Crews and Claudia Uccello in the back yard where she could see it from her place in the family room. The last time in the hospital, Helene Jacobson sent a balloon shaped like a butterfly, and we talked about butterflies being free. More of this later.
On Thursday of last week, Pastor Paul was there at a crucial time, between doctors who were telling us that there was nothing more to do. Pastor Paul had the words I couldn't find, as he helped us face this by asking, "What is it that we fear?" And we concluded that we do not fear death. I believe, and I believe Lois knows, that death is the next stage in living. We don't rejoice in death or seek it, because life is good. Death is not an end or a goal but is the doorway to "the next stage" in living. We don't fear death. We fear the transition and worry about suffering in the doorway to eternity.
Friday, our last day in the hospital, our good friend Adam Istas arranged for us to use an ultrasound machine in his office to see the first grandchild who is due in March. We moved Lois in a wheelchair several blocks around the Wash U. Med. School complex—amidst the streets, construction, cars, trees and sunshine—and we saw our grandchild—most likely a girl.
Lois came home on that Friday to face the transition. Two of my sisters, Anne and Irma, arrived to help. On Saturday there were only scattered periods of lucidity as Lois—in a pattern we are told is characteristic in the last few days—made some phone calls and said some last goodbyes to her mother Ruth, brother Carl and a few friends.
Lois' passage into the next stage of life wasn't easy. It was the end of a long struggle that had to be given up—because to do any more would make it worse rather than better, and we had to let her go. The struggle was shared with our daughters, son-in-law, and my sisters. Her body tired and gave up the last breath at 6 a.m. on Monday morning of this week.
I'm comforted remembering that Lois had said a few weeks before, "I'm not worried about me. No matter what the outcome, I will be alright."
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People, wrote also in How Good Do We Have to Be, that our memories make those we love immortal even in this world. Now as we remain behind, we know that though Lois has left, she is not gone.
Later that Monday, we took Helene's butterfly balloon to an open field, read a few passages and released the balloon from its binding weight. The balloon was low on helium. We feared it would fall to the ground, tumble across the dirt and end up stuck in a bush or a tree. But we felt it was an important symbolic gesture to let it go free.
It didn't rise into the winds. It floated just a little over our heads, slowly dipped and swooped toward trees at the edge of the field, bounced briefly under the eaves of a house, wended through the low branches, up through the wires, and then struggled up through the high branches to hit the open sky. As it emerged, there was a great wind that caught it and swept it swiftly away, carried magnificently high into the nearly cloudless sky toward the North.
We watched in awe as it rapidly dwindled to a speck in the distance, to be seen again perhaps by some child in some far away place.
We have a small disquiet about what the world would be like if everyone released balloons, but we have a better thought. Tulips were Lois' favorite flower and can be seen throughout our home. We have tulip bulbs which, when planted, will burst forth from the ground in the spring, grow to clusters that can be split and be passed on to others. These tulip bulbs can be a symbol of how we proliferate beauty as we touch each other and teach each other while passing through this world.
People sometimes ask what profound words were said as a last goodbye at the end of this stage of life. The gift I received from Lois may seem a little peculiar.
During the last 24 hours, there were few whole sentences spoken. As Lois lay on our bed, I was there in my usual place as we had been some 11,000 nights before. We moved her every few hours to keep her failing body as comfortable as we could. As we turned her on her side facing me, I said, "Now you can cuddle me."
She opened her eyes briefly, looked at me and said
"But I really don't like you."
Those were Lois' last words to me.
This treasure would be a little hard to understand for those who don't know Lois—
—except that there was a glimmer of a grin, she kissed me gently,
then she closed her eyes and descended into the struggle.
It was about 12 hours later that she broke through to the light.