Our volunteer Lori Ingram’s story of her relationship with her client Renee
When I started working with Renee I knew just a little of her life and circumstancesâ€”that she had a rare form of muscle cancer sheâ€™d treated successfully with chemotherapy years earlier, but which had recently returned with a vengeance. That sheâ€™d just purchased a home in Sonoma to be near her daughters and granddaughters after living in Berkeley for many years. That she wasnâ€™t sure if she wanted to try and fight the cancer off again, especially if it meant undergoing the rigorous and debilitating chemotherapy regimen sheâ€™d endured before.
I wasnâ€™t sure what to expect when I met with her the first time, but I didnâ€™t think Iâ€™d see a large new garden being planted in her back yard, a sunny open floor plan mobile home with beautiful, deeply saturated color on the walls, vivid paintings in equally brilliant colorsâ€¦ a new house in process of being redecorated into a home, and a woman deeply engaged in living while she explored and investigated the shortened time frame of her life.
Over the months we worked together, I learned more about her former lifeâ€¦the rent controlled apartment she kept for 20 years in Berkeley, even though it was dark and the other tenant was disturbing, the struggle to treat her cancer when it had first appeared, and the family and circle of friends she depended on during that time, her long career as a writer and her work to support herself and her children, her creativity that was expressed in so many ways. I listened to stories about family traumas, emotional wounds that were still asking for attention and the disciplines she studied on her journey to understand and heal those wounds.
What stayed with me, meeting after meeting, was how she gave herself over to the experience of it all, letting go of what had been before, to focus fully on what was happening now, in this new chapter—whether it was examining the messages of vivid dreams, reconsidering difficult life experiences, worrying about her children and how they would be affected by her death and the process of her dying, or working jigsaw puzzles, planting and harvesting in her garden, sharing time with her granddaughters, shopping for bargains at Target with one daughter, playing creatively with her new space and making it beautiful. Letting go of the tension and stress of all that she felt she had to be before, to consider what and who she was, now, in this period of borrowed time.
She moved through old traumas in the first few months we worked together, dreaming of her mother in a way that opened her heart to compassion after long years of conflict, coming to terms with her unconventional life choices and the impacts theyâ€™d had on her family and children, her estrangement from some family members, and whether she was able or willing to attempt a healing of the conflicts, facing her shadow parts with honesty and courage.
She also talked about what she was and wasnâ€™t willing to do to fight the cancer, and what alternative treatments she would try instead. She started to plan how she would transfer her property and estate to her children, and talked about what she wanted during her end days…and what she was fearful of encountering. In the midst of these conversations she gardened, swam, visited with friends, and fully engaged her life, willing to explore the depths of her feelings and her inner journey, messy or no.
She was courageous in many ways. When the tumors got bigger and she was anxious or in pain, we would practice some of the breath work and visualizations that are part of the Projectâ€™s tools. When she knew her time was limited to weeks she began to bargainâ€¦ could she live long enough to eat ripe tomatoes again, or see a certain flower in her garden bloom? She began saying goodbye to friends, and family members. When she entered hospice care her community gathered to share her final days and support her children. My role changed from interacting to holding space for quiet in the midst of all the activity and emotions surrounding her. Her work complete, she let go gently in the stillness of a Sunday evening, gazing into the eyes of her daughter.
A year later I recall her warmth and humor, her unflinching self scrutiny and honesty, her intense desire to understand and come to terms with her life choices and experiences, and her fully engaged living in the midst of learning how to say goodbye. I was honored to be a part of her journey.