“I chafe at being invisible as a person with cancer. I am a lifelong feminist and community organizer. I believe in breaking silence and sharing truth. I have a tattoo on my wrist declaring me a ‘Cancer Warrior.’ I sport buttons saying ‘Cancer Sucks.’ I pedal everywhere, slowly, on a bike that announces 'Cancer on Board.' I defy every attempt to limit me to my diagnosis as I dare the world to ignore it."
I knew, in her death, that she wanted none of the modern-day "Celebration of Life" that sanitizes the harsh reality that a death has occurred. She wanted space for our grief, a place for our communal mourning. And thus, in preparing for her memorial last weekend, I put together a slideshow as unique as Marcy herself, a slideshow that provides a glimpse of the manner in which she left us.
In tribute to Marcy’s spirit of defiance, her insistence that we join her in looking her illness and her death squarely in the eye, we began her memorial with her end, with a slideshow that depicts Marcy the Cancer Warrior; Marcy in her final days; Marcy as we cared for her body after death, following her instructions, of course; Marcy as we lowered her into her earthen grave accompanied by the Leonard Cohen song she picked as our collective lament and blessing.
Over 200 of Marcy's friends and colleagues came from around the state and across the country to mourn her in a five-hour gathering that also included a slideshow of her full 56 years, a sit-down meal, a dance party, and no fewer than 13 eulogists.
I recounted how she'd set out to acquire me as a friend over 25 years ago. She was the young Director of the Columbia County Women’s Resource Center and I was the even younger director of the statewide coalition of battered women’s shelters and rape hotlines. She didn’t court me by inviting me to coffee. She signed on to be chair of my board.
This led to countless roadtrips around the state – we held Board meetings in most of the rural counties she would later organize – and countless strategy sessions in her canoe and on her deck, over her artichoke dip. She supported me and challenged me and made my work better and my heart bigger. Her houseboat on Paradise Moorage was my country home, and my apartment in NW Portland was her townhouse.
She told an oral historian about that time, “We were kind of young, and very full of ourselves. We were doing great things. Probably very obnoxious. It was such a rich period of putting everything together and really getting all the skills I would need to start the Rural Organizing Project even though that was nowhere in my thoughts. But I knew I was going somewhere. I knew that I wanted to really, really turn things upside down.”
Years later we shared a wedding anniversary. She triumphantly co-opted my and Amber’s date – she knew it was another synchronistic bond that we would cherish. She and Mike had ample political reservations about getting legally wed, but one factor became decisive. They wanted to make sure they’d be able to push each other’s wheelchair when that time came, far down the road.
Of course, the time came all too soon. When she received that crushing diagnosis, I knew right away that this would be Marcy’s next, if final, leadership role.
At Marcy’s burial, I invited those who wished, to write any final words to send into the grave along with our flowers and tears. The word I wrote, that fluttered down with my grief-soaked gratitude, was “teacher”.
I’m a person who talks about death a lot. But what loving Marcy through these last five years has taught me about dying, death, myself, and the world we live in, will continue to unfold through the end of my own days.
Please consider joining me and Amber in donating in Marcy's honor to the Marcy Westerling Legacy Fund.
Marcy Rocks On (6.29.15)
A Secret Chord (6.14.15)
In Memory of Marcy Westerling (6.10.15 obituary)
Our Stories Matter (3.7.15)
I Am With You (2.5.15)
Marcy Speaks Her Truth (10.28.14)
My Friend Marcy Has Cancer. I Don't. Yet. (12.14.13)