I’m finally sitting down at my computer to follow Jane’s instructions and write to all of you, who she counted as her special friends, about her passing. Although it happened three months ago, it has taken me this long to feel ready to communicate about it in a way that feels right – with words that sufficiently honor Jane and convey to you the beauty and perfection of the ending of her life. Now, enough of the shock has gone that I think I can do it.
Her final journey was not an easy one, but then Jane was never one to do things the easy way, as we all know. She liked to meet life head-on, and she stayed true to herself right to the end. And since I had accompanied her on more than a few of her adventures in life, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of being with her on this last one, that was for sure. From the moment five months ago, when she discovered that she had terminal cancer, I spent the majority of my days at her side.
When Jane’s doctors told her how advanced her cancer was, she dug her heels in, saying that she wasn’t about to let the medical profession take control of her life and fill up her remaining time with futile treatment protocols. She knew the profession’s shadow side far too well from her years of working as a nurse. Besides, all her life she’d claimed the right to live exactly as she wanted to, regardless of the consequences (some of which were pretty major, though she always dealt with them unflinchingly!). So it came as no surprise that she also claimed the right to have the kind of dying that made sense to her – and it didn’t make sense to her to prolong the inevitable.
I immediately flew down to California to be with her and got her enrolled in hospice as she wanted, so she could remain in the little home in American Canyon that she and Leonard had lovingly created, rather than spending time in the hospital. There she prepared herself very consciously for the ending of her life, saying these beautiful words (which I jotted down when she said them to me): “I have everything I need and more than I ever thought would be possible. How many people can say that?”
Over the next three months, Jane grew steadily weaker but never once lost her dignity or her persnickety sense of humor. She summoned all her MacGregor stubbornness and put her practical affairs in meticulous order. She arranged for her cremation, asked that her ashes be scattered together with Leonard’s (which she’d been saving for the right moment), spent deliciously irreverent times with the handful of people she was closest to, and gave me instructions to communicate her loving goodbye to a list of others who mattered to her but who she couldn’t bear to upset with the news of her illness (in other words, all of you).
Then, determined to stay ahead of the far-advanced emphysema that was threatening to suffocate her to death from her years and years of heavy smoking (an awful way to die that she didn’t want to have to go through!), she basically told the cancer to come and get her. And that’s what it did, at daybreak, the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving.
It was a blessing to be with Jane during the months of her illness (we reminisced, watched stupid movies, and laughed at ourselves and at life in general), and it was also a blessing to be with her as death came for her on that last day. Charles, who had known Jane since 1966 and loved her almost as much as I did, was there too, holding vigil with me beside her bed. She remained conscious and giving us orders right until the last two days, when she slipped into a steadily deepening sleep. Finally, Sunday morning, just as the faint light of a new day was beginning to push back the shadows of the night, our darling Jane took one last breath and passed quietly away, leaving the house filled with a deep silence, and Charles and me with our hearts overflowing.
Hospice allowed us to keep Jane at home for a while after her death, and as Charles and I continued our vigil through that day into the next, we were graced to see her utterly worn-out body transform into a beautiful alabaster statue reclining in her bed with hands folded across her waist, a hot-pink rose from her garden lying where I placed it on her chest, her skin cool as marble to the touch. There was a look of absolute serenity on her face and a hint of Jane-like amusement at the upturned corners of her mouth. My, oh my, oh my.
I’m deeply grateful for the gift that Jane bestowed on me with her invitation to keep her company as she navigated her way out of this life, even though it was a nearly unbearable gift to receive. It dug out new depths in my heart. If it weren’t for the aura of acceptance and certainty that enveloped her all along the way, it would have been very hard to make it through.
For me, Jane’s death has meant the end of having a very special relationship with a very wonderful human being – one whose unique qualities of heroic determination, hard-headedness, burning belief, tender vulnerability, abundant creativity, and passionate love of freedom challenged me and taught me ever-evolving lessons for the past sixty-one years. It’s also meant the end of having a sister – someone who was close to me in a way that no other person has been. It’s a lot to let go of.
I’m sure it’s not been easy for you either, to find her gone so suddenly – and especially to learn of her passing without having had a chance to say a proper goodbye. But that was how Jane wanted it to be – she didn’t want people making a fuss over her. That was just who she was.
All I have to say now is:
Jane, I’m so proud of you! Your courage and determination never faltered, and neither did your fierce sense of humor. You were absolutely true to yourself to the end, and I wouldn’t trade the journey you took me on for anything!
It was an honor to be your witness as your life gathered up all its different strands – strands of dark and light, of pain and joy, of seeming failure and success – and showed them to be one seamless whole, the fabric of your existence, your own unique creation.
And while one part of my mind wonders why you had to leave so soon, another part feels a perfect rightness in it – because you’d done all that you needed to do. You were finished. And saying goodbye to someone who has completed their life’s work is a good feeling. I’m glad you showed me that.
"Page after page, tears filled my eyes as my heart opened and my spirit soared. Betsy MacGregor is the loving, life-affirming physician all of us want, the wise teacher every doctor needs."
~ JAMES GORDON, M.D., Founder, The Center for Mind Body Medicine, Washington, DC
So, all that’s left to say is: Nice going, kid!! You did a magnificent job!! Huge thanks for letting me travel with you!! I hold you forever in love. Your sister, Bets.
Thanks to all of you for listening. I’m sure you each have your own thoughts to send to Jane too. I know she was grateful to each of you for being in her life.