A family friend’s wife was diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She went into hospice care within nine months. When I heard the news, I immediately scheduled a time to visit her and her family, at their home.
She and I had liked each other, sure, but we didn’t have much in common. She was ten years older. She had just been promoted from stay-at-home-mom to grandmother. She loved to golf, so naturally, she spent half her time in Palm Springs. She had just finished building her dream home there when she got hit by a golf cart, triggering the disease. Driving out to see her, I was riddled with anxiety and thinking the usual thoughts everyone has when these kinds of tragedies happen. Why did this happen? If this were me, I’d feel crazy!
Not knowing what to expect, I brought over a bottle of champagne, thinking this would somehow make the situation lighter, cheerful, bubbly in a celebrating-her-life kind of way. I expected to brighten a gloomy mood, but there were plenty of bubbles already! From the minute I walked in the door, I entered a room governed by a sense of inexplicable joy, gratitude, and courage that under the circumstances felt pretty surreal. I could feel this energy powered by her eyes and her smile, so present and focused on me as if I was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen all day.
Despite her difficult diagnosis, nothing was difficult about our conversation, even though she couldn’t talk. There were no awkward or uncomfortable moments. Her family and I sat around and an hour flew by when a bunch her close friends showed up to do the Rosary. They invited me to stay and join them. I did. For four months I repeatedly came back and did The Rosary just so I could spend time in the presence of this woman who was mastering death with profound synchronicity and grace. I learned a lot about her through her friends’ and family’s stories. Nothing compared to how we looked and smiled each other, how we breathed the same air.
As her ALS worsened and she became unable to turn her head from side to side, she found herself staring at the same beige wall for months. When her husband told me how desperately she wanted to see the desert again and how much she missed it, I told him exactly what we were going to do!
Since she couldn’t travel to the desert, I would bring the desert to her. I promised her that in 8 hours, she would witness the desert again. The magic of a fresh coat of paint would bring that small gift to her. I would paint around her if I had to! I started the next day, wanting to surprise everyone at our next Rosary.
Of course, she chose a shade of turquoise. Turquoise encourages inner healing through its ability to enhance empathy and caring. It heightens our intuitive abilities and opens the door to spiritual growth. It is the color of the evolved soul. It was how I pictured her energy empowering the room.
Once the room was all painted in turquoise, her husband and I moved the furniture around (under her keen direction, through her eye-detecting computer). We hung her favorite piece of art right where she could see it. We made plans to move her bed by the window now that spring was finally around the corner. That night she was hungry, and she stayed up later than usual. She seemed to have an extra abundance of energy.
The next day, when I came back to do the Rosary, her husband answered the door and told me she had started to transition. She was leaving. She was peaceful and calm. He asked all her friends to stay and do the Rosary with her one final time. I said my farewell to an old friend who I had come to give a quick goodbye four months earlier, as a stranger.
Two days later, she passed away. It was her 40th wedding anniversary.
Several weeks later, at the memorial service, one of her children thanked me for painting the room. She said that the place where her mother had been for the last year would have been unbearable to walk into, let alone look at endlessly, if not for the beautiful color her mother had chosen.
The color had painted over the room’s association with her disease. It was no longer the beige, neutral tone of fading hours. It had become the beautiful sanctuary where her mother could peacefully transition and leave behind her light. She is gone now, but the memory of her optimistic, radiant last days are with us forever.