Your Wife, Faye

[Note: this is a short narrative by Elizabeth Russell written as a college course assignment on the topic of my mother’s death and our family’s goodbye to her. Also enjoy this wonderful reading of the story by Dr. Leslie Sillars, Professor of Journalism at Patrick Henry College.]

To my dear, beloved husband of almost 43 years:

You are trying to sleep right now behind me, fully clothed in your work attire, on a noisy crunchy plastic couch several feet shorter than you are. [You are] here with me in the hospital, after a very long hard day full of all kinds of stress, sacrificing, trying with all that is in you to serve me and help me. It’s a very appropriate picture of your life as my husband these many years…

He knows the words well by now. They bring back so many memories – raising nine children, years of missionary work in Taiwan, countless hikes and adventures and books read aloud in the evenings. The letter is creased and worn from many readings. He doesn’t know when she wrote it, exactly, but it must have been only a week or so before the end – before November 21, 2018, when cancer overwhelmed her body and sent her on ahead to God.

Steve and Faye Hake. Both of their names are etched into the headstone at his feet. They were not meant to be apart. Every month since her death, he has driven out to the cemetery to sit beside her in an old camp chair – reading her letter, reading his Bible, praying, remembering.

Today marks one year since her death. Here, among the cemetery’s bare trees and rolling hills, in the quiet and the cold, he has come to keep vigil with her. He will stay near her all day and all night.

It’s November 18, 2018. The Hakes’ small house, tucked into the rolling hills of West Virginia, is full of people. Thanksgiving is coming up in a few days, and their whole family has gathered to celebrate. The living room overflows with grandchildren and games.

Faye spends most of her time in her bedroom, slipping in and out of a medicated sleep. She’s declining rapidly, and they all know it. But no one says anything.

Faye never wants to talk about death. Ever since she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in May 2014, she’s been fighting and planning and questioning the doctors’ grim diagnosis. She’s so optimistic and full of life – it simply isn’t in her nature to accept the statistics. Only 22% of patients with Stage IV breast cancer live longer than five years after their diagnosis. But Faye is determined to be in that 22%. If she can just gain a little strength, she can start another round of chemo, hold on a little longer… But Steve has known for a long time that she is dying. He can almost bear it if they do it all themselves – if they make sure it’s done right.

Months ago, he began researching natural burials and chose a local cemetery that allowed them. He bought a Walmart flat sheet to use for the shroud, and coils of hemp rope to lower her with. He asked his son-in-law Joel to carve the headstone – a smooth gray river rock taken from a property they’d loved. He even chose the hymns for her funeral. But he’s never been able to tell Faye any of it.

Steve’s oldest son Jesse pulls him aside.

“Have you asked Mom about everything? Is she okay with it?”

“I don’t know if I can,” he admits.

So Jesse goes into the bedroom, alone, to confront his mother with her death.

A few minutes later, she shuffles out into the kitchen. The room is crowded with children and grandchildren. Everyone is laughing – they’re making her an egg salad sandwich with pickles on top, some family joke. She laughs about the sandwich with them.
When the laughter dies down, she speaks quietly.

“Jesse told me about everything, and it’s okay.”

It’s very still. Then the jokes and laughter begin again, and that is all. But it’s enough.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, 2018. Faye was taken to hospice yesterday and slipped away quietly this morning, sometime just after sunrise. Steve spent the night on the floor, lying beside her bed. Now, he and his children are bringing her home.

Somehow, they get her body into the back of the old van. When they reach home, four of the boys gently roll her onto blankets and begin carrying her inside. Steve walks with them, at her head. They wonder if the front or the back way is fastest. They choose the back door, but the room they are carrying her through is full of boxes and old furniture from a move. A table leg sticks out too far, and they wait in strained silence while one of the girls rearranges the furniture. Someone breaks into nervous laughter. It’s strange and sad and comical and Steve wonders, Are we doing this right?

He doesn’t know. But it helps that they’re doing this together. The vast wilderness of loss is not uncharted; it only feels that way. He clings to that moment in the kitchen, to her voice saying softly, “It’s okay.”

Steve knows that Faye is not here anymore. But the body still feels like her. So they dress her in her favorite clothes and drape her in her favorite blue-and-brown blanket. They fill the bedroom with flowers and prayers and readings from her favorite Bible passages. Someone is always in there with her, holding her hand. Her hands are cold; under her are 25 pounds of dry ice, to keep the body from decaying. But the pain is gone from her face. Her gray-brown hair has been smoothed back from her full cheeks. She looks almost like she did back in college.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Steve is mostly numb with the strangeness of it all, like an amputation. But a weary thankfulness washes over him – gratitude that at least they can honor her. At least they can say goodbye like this.

Two days later, Steve and his sons are digging her grave. The morning is cold. They take turns, shovels biting into the deep red soil and heaping it up on either side of the grave. Six feet deep, six feet long, two feet wide. It’s hard work, but it feels good to do it themselves.

He needs to know what it will be like for her. Struck by a sudden impulse, he lies down in the grave. Staring up at the pale blue sky, he thinks One day this will be me, next door.

A year later, night is falling as Steve sits beside the grave. He can still make out the pale letters on the headstone that read Steve and Faye Hake. Cancer now runs through his body, too. How long before he is laid next to her?

Steve doesn’t know. But he is not afraid.

It’s okay.

He hopes that, when his kids dig his own grave, they scoot him over right next to her.

As dusk falls, he lies down beside her, huddled in an old sleeping bag. He stares up into the cloudy night-blue sky, and her words come back to him.

I am getting very sleepy and fuzzy with pain medicine now, at 1:19 a.m. in this hospital bed. You are snoring peacefully behind me, if not comfortably, on that couch. I hope to have a few more days, weeks, or months – if not years, possibly – to hear and enjoy your snoring that I sometimes flipped you over to avoid.

I will quit now. I love you, Steve…I can’t wait to bow down together before God someday…and afterwards, to express our gratitude…

Thank you for the lovely long hike. I love you, Steve.

Your wife,
Faye

Memory Eternal, Mom

This day last year, I helped to lay you in your bed downstairs when Dad, Joel, Katie, Luke and Liesl brought your body home. It was hard to have you with us and also no longer there. It was a blessing to have a few more days to see your beautiful face, to tend to your dear body that had born so much for us, to gather around you as all of your children and grandchildren in prayers and readings and songs. We read all the way through the Bible memory book that you and Dad made before you were married and kept working at all your lives. It was very hard to lay you in the ground and give your body over to the earth, but you would have loved the place that Dad picked out for the two of you. It’s truly a beautiful grave, among the native trees of Virginia, near a field sloping down to the nearby Shenandoah. You’re father and mother would have approved as well. How delightful it would be to show it to all of you. It’s kind of funny how much several of us also love to hear the prayers and songs of the Cistercian monks in their nearby abbey. You would have appreciated this too, although on some days you might have laughed and shaken your head at any of us mooning over monks. I’ve got a second essay being published in the Front Porch Republic. You missed them both, and I wrote them both thinking mostly of how much fun it would have been to talk it all over with you. And you would have really laughed to hear me laugh about being given more responsibilities at church and at the little company were I work. I don’t expect that your father would have fully approved of all the frippery, but grandma would have been proud nonetheless. There is an awful lot missing around home with you gone. We’re hurting in your absence, but you left behind a husband who really works hard to take care of himself and of all the children that you had together. And a few of those children are also working awfully hard to take care of each other. You did a pretty decent job of raising them and teaching them about things that matter. I don’t expect you’re in much danger these days of getting more big headed, but you know I always liked to hold on to the task of keeping you humble as one of my special chores around the house. So I’ll not say much more about what you left behind in case it tempt you to any self-congratulations as unlikely as that might be. But I will say that by remembering you as long as I keep being allowed to kick about this place, I’m also still learning who you were. You prayed with a terrible lot of heart for us all, and I expect that you’re still doing something mighty near to that. So here’s my hello and thank you and goodbye all over again on this anniversary of losing you. There’s a whole bunch of us praying with you, Mom, and even for you. May Jesus remember us all in His kingdom as we look to Him to bring us home.

like a damned employee

That was the harshest criticism he ever made of the children: “You’re acting like a damned employee.”

He quit saying such things after Margaret became an employee of her school board and Mattie an employee of his company and Caleb an employee of his university, but I know he kept thinking them. He wanted to be free himself, and he wanted his children to be free.

…One of the attractions of moving away into a life of employment, I think, is being disconnected and free, unbothered by membership. It is a life of beginnings without memories, but it is a life too that ends without being remembered. The life of membership with all its cumbers is traded away for life of employment that makes itself free by forgetting you clean as a whistle when you are not of any more use. When they get to retirement age, Margaret and Mattie and Caleb will be cast out of place and out of mind like worn-out replaceable parts, to be alone at the last maybe and soon forgotten.

“But the membership,” Andy said, “keeps memories even of horses and mules and milk cows and dogs.”

From Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (132-134).

child and mother and father

From G. K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man:

We can say that the family is the unit of the state; that it is the cell that makes up the formation. Round the family do indeed gather the sanctities that separate men from ants and bees. Decency is the curtain of that tent; liberty is the wall of that city; property is but the family farm; honour is but the family flag.

If we are not of those who begin by invoking a divine Trinity, we must none the less invoke a human Trinity; and see that triangle repeated everywhere in the pattern of the world. For the highest event in history, to which all history looks forward and leads up, is only something that is at once the reversal and the renewal of that triangle. …The old Trinity was of father and mother and child and is called the human family. The new is of child and mother and father and has the name of the Holy Family. It is in no way altered except in being entirely reversed; just as the world which is transformed was not in the least different, except in being turned.

faculty of wonder

There is a deep similarity between the union of the soul and body and the mystery of the family. In both cases we are in the presence of the same fact, or rather something which is far more than a fact since it is the very condition of all facts whatever they may be: I mean incarnation. I am not, of course, using this term in its theological sense. It is not a question of our Lord’s coming into the world, but of the infinitely mysterious act by which an essence assumes a body, an act around which the meditation of a Plato crystallised, and to which modern philosophies only cease to give their attention in so far as they have lost the intelligence’s essential gift, that is to say the faculty of wonder.

From page 69 of “The Mystery of the Family” in Homo Viator by Gabriel Marcel (1965).