From the editor Legacy of a thoughtful woman

From the editor
Legacy of a thoughtful woman

Marilyn Mowry was a thoughtful woman, in both senses of the word. She cared about other people and she had deep ideas; she was both considerate and contemplative.

When my girls were little, and treats were few and far between, she had noticed this, without comment, and taken them on special outings, like a trip to the movies. When they had rescued an abandoned kitten, secretly raising it in our shed because I was allergic to cats, they confided in Marilyn and she took the stray in and has it still. Or did, until she died this week.

Marilyn died as she had lived. She spent her last nine days in the hospice at St. Peter’s — the same place her life companion, Bryce Butler, had died in 2001.

Just after Bryce died of cancer, Marilyn was diagnosed with cancer herself.

Bryce had worked for The Altamont Enterprise for 19 years as a writer and editor. Beginning with his cancer diagnosis in April of 2000, he wrote a stunning series of columns on facing death and living life, published in our paper. He chose the series’ dramatic title himself — "Dead Man Writing."

Marilyn, a retired school librarian, shepherded Bryce with great courage and love through his disease to his death.

"She stayed in hospice all day and all night until he went home," said one of Bryce's brothers the week he died. "When he talked in stream of consciousness from the brain tumors, she’d interpret what he meant. She said of caring for Bryce, ‘I don’t consider it a job. I consider it a privilege.’"

Marilyn continued to care for Bryce, to carefully tend his memory, after he died. Although she was diagnosed with cancer herself, she said, "I tried to do what I promised to do."

That was to publish Bryce’s memoirs. And she did. An elegant volume, put together by friend Laurie Searl, was published in 2003. Titled The Traveled Road, it begins with Bryce’s memoirs and ends with his "Dead Man Writing" essays. Marilyn went on to resurrect essays Bryce had written as part of an "I Remember Altamont" series. The last of those essays appears in this issue of The Enterprise.

Marilyn told me, when Bryce's book was published, that she found great comfort in his "Dead Man Writing" columns as she faced her own cancer and her own mortality. Bryce, through his written words, was there to shepherd her as she had him.
"I was pretty down during my own chemotherapy," she said. "I pulled them out and re-read them. They helped me a lot...You understand the person really knows what you’re going through. When you’re terminally ill with cancer, you enter another zone; people sort of tiptoe around you. He told it like it is. You feel like you have a friend, someone who shares it with you."

As Marilyn went into St. Peter’s hospital this last time, she saw to it that Bryce’s essays were printed to be available to help other cancer patients.

On Sunday, I visited Marilyn in hospice — the same place where Bryce had been. She was surrounded by women who loved her.

Her daughter, Becky Letko, said that her last days were filled with visiting friends and interesting conversations: "Saturday night, she said, ‘This is wonderful; this is like Make A Wish.’ Bryce told her these days were the best days."

Her daughter said Marilyn had wondered if she’d meet the physical challenges of dying with as much grace as she had hoped, and she did, absolutely.

"She was constantly thinking about other people," said her daughter. "I was her arms and legs. She would give me the list of things to do — like sending a Mother’s Day card — and I’d do it."

I remembered how, just after Bryce died, Marilyn searched out a special picture to give to The Enterprise staff. It was a favorite of Bryce. He had a tattered copy that hung by his desk and that he asked me to bring into hospice as he lay dying.
The photograph, by Marty Knapp, shows a little boy basking in the sun with a cat and a dog; all three are still, and look perfectly at ease.

Marilyn found the photographer through an Internet search and bought an original copy of the picture for us, which she had elegantly framed. In the midst of her own grief, she presented us with this gift. She knew how much we missed Bryce, and this helped fill the void.

The photograph hangs now on our newsroom wall, an oasis of peace in a sometimes ugly world. I bask in its presence.
Sunday afternoon, Marilyn talked with her sisters and friends — sitting in a circle around her hospital bed — about flowers and fish, about girlhood memories and recent struggles.

At one point she was feisty, saying, "I should get affidavits signed for this stuff before I kick off so you know it’s true."

At another point she was frustrated. "All the things you fought against, they trap you at the end — the system, the insurance," said Marilyn. She paused and added apologetically, "I sound like a cynic."

"You’re fine, girlfriend, you’re just fine," her friend comforted her.

When a nurse came in to administer medication, the nurse apologized for another patient’s screaming.

"There’s nothing so bad about screaming," said Marilyn. "What you don’t want to do is cry."

I told Marilyn she should do whatever she wanted. The other women, including the nurse, all said Marilyn should cry if it made her feel better.

But Marilyn was concerned that crying would upset others. She was always concerned about others more than herself. She had a quiet, constant way of helping people in need without drawing attention to herself or her contributions.

As Bryce faced his mortality, he wrote, "The question is, how should I, or anyone who knows his death is near — or anyone at all, knowing that death is inevitable — spend his time""

Bryce chose to work, to keep writing. Leaving a legacy was important to him, and Marilyn saw that his words were published in a book.

Marilyn didn’t seem concerned with leaving a legacy herself. She chose to keep on caring, and that has become her legacy.

She told me once, "I think I’m stoical...I think of myself as a lightning rod for the rest of my family...When I was a little kid, I’d lie awake at night to hear everyone breathing to make sure they were all safe."

I’m still breathing, Marilyn, but I don’t feel as safe. I miss you.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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