The World According to Debra Winegarten
One year ago today, “The Debster” as Deb was affectionately called, made her transition. She was one of the most generous persons I have ever met. In 2017, I wrote about the great gift she gave to me as my memoir, A Long Awakening to Grace, was published. Here is the link to that post.
Deb’s writing partner and dear friend, Jeanne Guy, spent a lot of time with Deb during the sixty-one days she lived after her first appointment with an oncologist. I am grateful to Jeanne, who wrote this lovely piece, for giving me permission to share it in my blog.
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I sit next to Debbie’s hospital bed, hold her hand, watch her smile.
The life and future plans of my writing friend of eight years have been up-ended by a sudden and surprising diagnosis of an aggressive cancer. First the lungs, ultimately metastasizing to her hip bones and brain. Prognosis: maybe two years.
When I first walked into the room, I found her sitting in bed on a phone call. The speakerphone allowed me to hear her friend say, “So it sounds like this has been brewing for a while. Do they know when it started?”
Due to a paralyzed vocal cord that struck earlier in the year, Deb whispered, “I didn’t ask. I only ask questions to which there are answers that will move me forward.”
A dialogue begins in my heard. How many hours have I wasted ruminating on things I could do nothing about?
Debbie closes the call with, “You know, my blood type is B positive so that’s what I’m going to be.” The whispered message is loud and clear.
Lesson #1: We can’t go back. Dump the rumination. It wastes precious time and energy.
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A week has passed. The two-year prognosis has been changed: two months. I am bedside, listening to her spirited views of life.
She explains Tikkun Olam. In Jewish teachings, it means any activity that improves the world, bringing it closer to the harmonious state for which it was created.
Debbie insists I can make my little corner of the world better than how I found it. We are all called, she says, to repair or fix the world. The trick is to know your part. I think that’s why she encouraged all her writing sisters (an email group of Story Circle Network writers) to practice making “Outrageous Requests.” Sort of like doing something out of your comfort zone to strengthen your “courage” muscle and improve your ability to improve the world.
“You are powerful and don’t know it,” she says. “Look how empowered I am. I have an effect on the world, and I’m lying here in a fucking hospital bed.”
Lesson #2: Do what is yours to do. Do your part.
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I sit next to her hospital bed, hold her hand, feel the warmth of her smile.
The four weeks of hospitalization and radiation have come to an end. She is going home where she will be on hospice care. I have learned over these weeks not to ask unanswerable questions.
I quietly say, “What will it feel like to be home?”
She pauses before saying, “I don’t know. I can’t think that far ahead. I can only be here with you now.” Her sweet smile pulls me into the moment.
Lesson #3: This moment is all we have. The moment is everything. Be present.
~ ~ ~
She is temporarily moved to Hospice Austin’s Christopher House to adjust meds.
Her bed has been shifted, giving her a better view through an open door of a painted tropical scene on the outside wall of an adjacent building.
I realize it is her Sabbath. “This is Saturday. It’s a holy day for you, right? Should I say or do something special?” I lean in to hear her whispered guidance.
“Yes,” she instructs. “Go over to the refrigerator, find the chocolate, and bring two spoons.”
I rummage through the small fridge and spot a clear plastic container with a domed top revealing whipped cream sprinkled with shaved chocolate.
“This?” I look at her for approval and receive a confirming smile.
“Shabbat Shalom,” she whispers as she feeds me the first bite.
The nurse comes in with liquid pain medicine. Debbie holds the little plastic cup as if it is a chalice of fine wine, says a paryer in Hebrew, and drinks it.
The nurse leaves. Debster winks at me. We go back to sharing our chocolate.
Lesson #4: Sabbath, Rituals, and Humor Matter
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Later during our visit, she complains that her bed has deflated. Nurses arrive and test the bed. I step forward to assist. Debbie looks me straight in the eye, points her finger at me, and says, “You. You don’t worry about this. Understand?”
I nod and stand back as a nurse calls for assistance. A handsome young man who looks like he should be the star of a Prana clothing ad, appears. He is cordial, quiet, and attentive. And handsome. I already mentioned that, didn’t I.
He and Debbie share their lives in a moment of remarkable conversation. I offer him assistance as he works but am again admonished by Debbie and stop for fear of being turned into salt like Lot’s wife. “You are not to worry about this. If you do, it’s misspent energy and then I have to worry about you–not a good use of my time.”
Lesson #5: Don’t do what is NOT yours to do. It depletes your energy to deal with what IS yours to do.
~ ~ ~
I sit next to her bed, hold her hand, watch her smile. She is not long for this world.
Debbie has been home for about three weeks, in a hospital bed situated in her large bedroom, the walls of which Cindy, her beloved, has adorned with her favorite paintings and pictures. Her face resembles a happy sunburst, beaming as she listens to her talented brother, Marc, play the piano in the living room. The music–old show tunes, love songs, and classics–fills the house with love.
Though weak and non-verbal, Debbie lights up the room and my heart. She sees my eyes glisten with tears, squeezes my hand, and we both know this will be our last visit.
She falls asleep. Before I leave, I kiss her cheek and whisper, “Bye for now. I love you.”
Lesson #6: Love is a matter of life and death.
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Jeanne Guy of Jeanne Guy Gatherings is an author, speaker, seasoned facilitator, and has been a self-awareness “re-story” writing coach since 1994. She is the 2018-2020 president of Story Circle Network, a 22-year-old non-profit organization that is committed to helping women write and share their stories, and to raising public awareness of the importance of women’s personal histories. Jeanne is co-author of Seeing Me: a guide to reframing the way you see yourself through reflective writing.
With dry wit, vulnerability, and an encouraging facilitation style, she offers personal growth-through-writing workshops and retreats. She is completing a memoir, You’ll Never Find Us, the story of how her children were stolen from her and how she stole them back. You should pre-order the book.
She and architect/husband Robert live outside Austin, Texas with two ornery cats.