Marie Shirer: Quilter, Priest, Friend Extraordinaire

June 4, 2002.

She slipped away in the middle of the night, as many people do. We, her friends, family and colleagues had been sitting vigil with her for six weeks as she surrendered her Earthly life to the ravages of cancer.

We laughed and questioned and cried. We suffered and we celebrated. On this morning four years ago, we gathered one last time in her hospice room to say our final goodbyes. It was freezing in there—the hospice’s attempt to preserve her body and keep the environment as safe as possible. But her room was always cold; she suffered terribly from “tumor sweats”, so the rest of us wore sweaters and shawls and even used an extra blanket once in awhile to tuck around our shoulders or feet.

Marie’s departure from us was an anguish, of course, and on this anniversary I find myself crying over the loss of her wild and wonderful presence as if it had happened yesterday. I miss her terribly.

And yet those days of her dying wove a holy coccoon of transformation around us all. She faced her death with the same honesty, humor, and intensity that characterized her whole, brief life. Whether she was designing a new quilt, challenging a seminary professor, entertaining her Colorado friends over a traditional Swedish Christmas dinner in her Arvada home, playing with her adorable Corgis, or sitting with a grieving family, Marie gave her entire being to the task of living.

Margaret Guenther called me at the convent to tell me that the investigation into Marie’s troublesome cold had revealed a much more serious problem: stage IV liver cancer. As Marie quickly added to the diagnosis, “There is no Stage V.” Everyone knew the remaining few weeks for her wouldn’t include chemotherapy or radiation or any other attempt to delay her inevitable death. They would be filled instead with finding her a comfortable place to die and providing relief from her pain. (I can’t say enough about Washington Home and Hospice; my sisters are going to have to cart me down there if I wind up in similar circumstances.)

Those short weeks were also filled with an amazing group of women who surrounded Marie and quickly learned to love each other with a depth that awed us all. Not one of us escaped Marie’s challenge to engage in this dying as sister, comforter, companion of the heart. The day I arrived, she looked me in the eye (a classic Marie glare), and said, “OK, Sister. What really happens after death?” And she wanted a meaty answer, nothing that even hinted at platitude. Whew; I knew immediately the days ahead would prove to be an adventure typical—and worthy—of Marie.

No matter how awful a situation could be, Marie would occasionally find a way to lighten things up. She understood the healing power of humor better than anyone else I ever met. One day we suggested wheeling her bed her out to the patio to enjoy the warm sun. This was one of the first days that she knew she would never leave that bed. She was in a crabby mood, and we thought the change might ease her frustration. Suddenly she sat up, grabbed the bed railings and pasted a wild look of glee on her face. She made racing noises and rocked back and forth, just like a little boy in a pretend race car. We all burst out laughing; her Barney Oldfield impersonation had evaporated the building tension.

In late May, as I sat beside her shivering in the cold while she soaked her bed with sweat, she told me that the dying process was really boring. Our long, wonderful relationship allowed me to tell her I was finding it boring, too. I had knit enough scarves to outfit the entire crew of an oil tanker, and she could no longer engage in a book, TV or a long conversation. And we were both tired of the cruelty of cancer.

Near the end, Marie began to shift into dream-language; we often think a dying person is just “out of her head”, but I believe that the same symbolism used by our dreams crosses over into our more wakeful moments, communicating important information. Days before she died, Marie awoke from one of her lengthening naps and said to me, “Sister, let’s just get out of here, get in the car and head for the airport.”

I hesitated as I thought about what she might be “processing” internally. Clearly her conversations had increasingly reflected a desire to move on. As I sat there she added, “But you would lose your parking space, wouldn’t you?”

“Ah, yes,” I finally said. “And I’m not really ready to give up my parking space yet.” Marie closed her eyes, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

My last moments with Marie’s body were incredibly healing. She had died with that same small smile tickling her face, and it was still there three hours later. I sat with her body as it traveled its own journey into the future, and was awed to realize that bodies don’t “just stop”—they have a job to do and they do it with an elegance and beauty that stunned me. It was the opening of my own healing process.

On June 8, a large group gathered at her beloved St. Columba’s Church to grieve her death and celebrate her life, and we did both. Margaret wrote the following prayer for that occasion, and I find comfort in it today as I did in those first moments when I realized that I would spend the rest of my own life without the challenging, joyful presence of my dear friend.

Loving, gracious God,Creator, Mother, Father, Look upon this weave of women! Mothers, daughters, sisters, friends; Woven together in love of you and in love of our sister Marie. Artist, creator, seamstress God, Gifted, ingenious user of scraps and pieces, big and little, look upon this patchwork quilt of women’s lives, unfinished, filled with color, filled with light and filled with darkness, moving toward wholeness and stitched together in the intricate loveliness of your quilting.

Help us to be midwives. Help us to reflect your tender mother love. Help us to be fully present to the wonder of your presence. We offer you our thanksgivings. We offer you our hopes. We offer you our prayers. Help us to remember that this circle is and will be unbroken. Help us to remember that we are bound together in your love.

Marie, my dear friend, may you rest in the arms of the angels of Light. I’m sure you are entertaining them with your eternal, lively wit; may nothing ever bore you again.

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2 thoughts on “Marie Shirer: Quilter, Priest, Friend Extraordinaire

  1. I am searching the web for some info about dying of liver cancer. My mother is near her final days due to some form of liver disease (she has a blocked bile duct due to some sort of growth, and no treatment available). I am hoping for some info to aid her caregiving.

    If it is not too much a burden, would you mind giving me some info on the time period Marie was bed bound, and was pain a factor in her last days. What were the things that gave her comfort towards the end?

    Thanks again. My email account is cnv96@nortel.com

  2. I fear I deleted an anonymously posted comment this morning. Here is the text of that comment:

    “I would say it’s remarkable that the prayer written for by a Christian priest for her funeral fails to mention the name of Jesus — not even a hint — but, sadly, that’s no longer ‘remarkable’ in the ECUSA”.

    My apologies for the error.

    I might also add this note: Marie was a priest devoted to Jesus, and her funeral was filled with the spirit of that love. I’m glad to say that I believe our church is also filled with the spirit of that love. CG

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