Debra Ruder Communications

Writing that matters

Mary’s last month

Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1994, Mary spent half of her short life battling cancer. After the disease spread and it became clear that treatments were no longer working, the New Hampshire teenager moved into a special “comfort room” at Children’s Hospital Boston. There, the spirited 16-year-old spent her final month with her parents and older sister, sleeping in adjacent beds.

Several years after Mary’s death, her mother described this goodbye with me, recalling those last weeks as a gift to their family:

“We had over 100 visitors, and many came more than once. Some people have said to me, ‘How could you do that at such a private time?’ But Mary loved her friends and family, so it was very important to have them there. They needed it as well, to say goodbye to her. There was a community of people who loved and supported Mary, especially during the eight years of her illness.

When Mary would say she wanted to go home, we would tell her, ‘You are home because we’re all here with you. And this is where we need to be.’

Her primary nurse at the Jimmy Fund Clinic [of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she received outpatient treatment] referred to her as the Energizer Bunny. Mary tried so many treatments and clinical trials, and she had some near-death experiences, but she would bounce back. This time, I knew she wasn’t going to bounce back. But I don’t know if she ever gave up hope. She told my husband that her quote was, ‘Live each day to its fullest and never give up.’

Mary knew that after her death she would be with God, and she wouldn’t have pain anymore. She had pain in her back, and the tumor was all along her spine and affecting her whole body; she was paralyzed from the waist down. During the last year of her life, when she was in a wheelchair, Mary took up painting. We found an artist who’d come to the house and work with her. Mary would sit and paint for two to two-and-a-half hours, doing landscapes and still lifes, even when she was on treatment.

Mary loved fashion and shopping, and the weekend before she died, she went to the mall. Her oncologist arranged for a nurse to go with us, and classmates of Mary’s wheeled her around so she could pick out what she wanted. She bought a sweater and pants and socks; that was a really special treat.

She did an amazing thing on the day she died [in November 2002]. I was running around doing errands, and she went to the lobby of the hospital with my husband. She saw flowers for sale and said, ‘I want to buy those pink roses for me and mom,’ and so when I got back to the room, there were those pink roses. That was Mary, always thinking about other people.

She started to have real difficulties that afternoon. At one point we went out in the hallway, and Joanne [Wolfe, her primary oncologist] said Mary was very close to dying. The three of us went in separately and said our private goodbyes. I believe I said, ‘It’s OK to go and be with God, because you need to rest. Your body has been through enough.’ Mary would have kept fighting because she never gave up.

We gathered with Joanne, her nurses and social worker, and Fr. Bob Nee, a Roman Catholic chaplain at Children’s Hospital. We encircled Mary’s bed and read a responsive prayer. Her sister held her, and I lay next to her, and her father was standing over her. She died in her sister’s arms, with all of us close by, touching her with our hands.

After Mary died, we had some time to stay with her – but that wasn’t long enough. I wish I had spent the whole night in her room and not gone home. I would still be there if I could be. I would have held her forever.”