Sunday, October 4, 2015

Little fräulein

Anna reflected that Michelle would have been age 46 yesterday, if not that Michelle will always be 21.

Summer 1990

She was a 20-year-old Indiana University nursing student in 1990, recently diagnosed with leukemia, and a patient on 5 East Oncology at St. Vincent. After scoring a remission, Michelle had relapsed, and wasn’t too happy about it. The one thing that seemed to cheer her up was the idea of another remission and getting strong enough to make her first skydive.

It was her pastor from Second Presbyterian, Dr. Joan Malick, who called the drop zone in Frankfort to see if someone might be willing to drive down to Indianapolis and talk to Michelle about what it felt like to jump out of an airplane. In 1990, I was going to school during the day, working nights in security at St. Vincent, and skydiving on the weekends and whenever else I could squeeze it in.

The DZ owner Cathie figured that since I worked there, I might be interested in the task. Sure, I said. Be glad to. What skydiver doesn’t want to tell other people about skydiving?

When I showed up in Michelle’s hospital room a week later, two things struck me. One: The walls in her room were nearly papered over with get-well cards and hundreds of pictures. Michelle with

her cat, family pictures, pictures with her sister, with her mom, her dad, prom photos, with her boyfriend Brad, and friends, friends, friends. Small groups, big groups, posed, candid, Halloween costumes, birthday parties, Christmas gatherings, vacations. Hundreds of pictures. Hundreds. This was clearly a girl with no shortage of people who cared about her.

The other thing that struck me was that even made bald by the

chemo and made puffy from steroids, this was an extraordinarily beautiful young woman.

I did my skydiver’s dog-and-pony show. I showed her what my parachute looked like and how it worked. I played one of our year-end skydiving highlight videos, complete with music sound track. I talked about the fun of it and how my friends and I would wake up every Saturday morning and gauge the weather on the jumpability of the forecast: cloud cover, chance of rain, forecasts for wind speed and direction at various altitudes. To prep her for her first jump, I gave Michelle a skydiving tee shirt and her own logbook.

A couple days later, I dropped in again to see how she was doing. I was security after all, so had good reason to be “just passing by.” I stopped in again a couple days later, and again a couple days after that. If she was feeling well, I’d give her the latest news from the drop zone. They had a DC-3 in last weekend, so we got to do some big dives. Or maybe some stories of the night dives we made during last Saturday’s full moon. What good jokes got told. What kind of beer got drank after the planes were tied down and the gear stowed away.

If Michelle wasn’t feeling well, it might be a short conversation with her mother Anna by the nurses’ station.

After a couple weeks of these occasional visits, I felt a need to do something more for her than just telling skydiving stories. I’d heard about a book by a physician named Bernie Siegel, called Love, Medicine, and Miracles. He wrote about healing exercises you could do for another person. 

One exercise went something like this: you meditate and picture “healing light” all around you. You then visualize yourself as a magnifying glass, gathering and focusing and concentrating and directing that light toward the person you want to help. I figured I’d give it a try. Why not? As I practiced, the thought occurred this was something we’d typically call “prayer,” except using images instead of words.

What effect this directed light had on Michelle, I can’t really say. But for me, some odd things started to happen. I’d be in the middle of one of these meditation exercises and see the image of, say, Stevie Ray Vaughn, wearing his black flat-brim plateau and a fringed leather vest. I’d then go out into the world and two hours later pass that very guy on the sidewalk. There were the retrocognitive dreams: have a dream, call the person and tell them about it, have them respond “that happened yesterday.” 
Unusual coincidences cropped up. These things happened with increasing regularity and I started writing them down, partially to convince myself I wasn’t nuts.

During these drop-bys, Anna and I became friends (as I

did with Harry, their minister from home, who would later become Anna’s husband and who 17 years later would officiate at Jill’s and my wedding). I told Anna what I was doing with the meditation exercises, and told her about the oddities. Anna said she too was having the same things going on: the dreams and the coincidences. 

Winter 1990

Despite all the treatments, Michelle’s body was wearing out and the leukemia was gaining on her and she was nearing the end of her fight. She was discharged from St. Vincent, and they took her home to her father Mike’s house in Muncie. They set up a bedroom for her on the first floor and this is where the hospice nurses came daily to check on her.

The curious experiences around Michelle’s odyssey continued in Muncie. Anna told of sitting with her in her room, reading a book while Michelle slept. Anna said:

She stirred and started to wake up. Her eyes opened, she looked at me, and began speaking in what sounded like fluent German. After a couple moments of that, she stopped and closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep. Now, Michelle had never visited Germany, never taken any German language classes, didn’t have any German friends I knew of. My thought was, "I think our little fräulein has been here before."

I visited Muncie a couple days before Michelle passed. I brought a colorful scarf the oncology nurses

on 5 East had asked me to deliver. When she lost her hair, all of it blond and sunlight, Michelle refused to consider a wig of any kind. She preferred scarves -- multi-hued fabrics with bold and creative knots.

It was late November, cold and bright. I took off my coat while Anna told me that Michelle was waning. She was sleeping most of the time, and not quite coherent during the brief periods she was awake. We went to her room and stood at the foot of her bed. Michelle was pale, wearing a knit hat, swaddled in blankets, and thinner than the last time I’d seen her. Her eyes were open but unfocused. I spoke to her as if she could hear and understand. I told her that Julie and Terry and Sarah and the other nurses on 5 East sent their love and this scarf they thought she’d like. I took it out of the box and held it up for her to see.

Michelle’s hand raised off the bed and the fell back to her side. Again she raised her hand, and again it fell. After a third time, it seemed her motions were intentional and that she was “patting” her bedside. I turned to Anna, who looked surprised.

“I think she wants you to sit down,” Anna said. I went over and perched on her bedside and took Michelle's hand in mine. “Do you think we could have a minute?” I said. Anna pulled the door closed on her way to the kitchen.

I told Michelle what it had meant to me to know her. I told her I was grateful for the things I’d learned because of her. She didn't respond, but I had the feeling she was hearing my words. I said I hoped that when she was ready, she knew it was okay for her to go.

At this, her face did register a response. It was the shadow of a scowl. In trying to comfort, I feared I’d offended her: the possibility of not recovering had never been something she wanted to consider. Even now, it seemed. “I’m sorry if I said the wrong thing,” and just sat with her hand in mine.

After a moment, something else started to happen. Michelle’s face began to transform. The scowl relaxed and her eyes began to focus. Her head and her attention turned to a point over my shoulder and behind me. Her gaze fixed on that point and a little smile began to spread on her face. I turned to look where she was looking, thinking maybe Anna had returned to the room. Nothing there.

I turned back to her and found the little smile growing. I can only describe her face as “opening” into a love for whatever, or whomever, she was seeing. Until now, her eyes had been unfocused and unseeing. But now she was clearly zeroed in on something or someone, whom she seemed to recognize and for whom she felt great love. My neck began to tingle as I turned again to follow the direction of her gaze. By the intensity of her focus, I felt there must be someone standing behind me. But still, I saw nothing.

Her face transformed once again. The word that now seemed to best describe the look on her face was this: ecstasy. She uttered little gasps, again and again, and her face seemed awash with a joy she was barely able to contain. I felt I should look away, embarrassed, like I had somehow walked through the wrong door and stumbled upon lovers in their embrace. My sense was that if her body had been stronger, those gasps would have been gleeful laughter.

But I couldn’t look away, because I knew what I was witnessing. There was someone in the room. Michelle was close now to the next world, and the veil between the two worlds was thin for her. Who was she seeing? A grandmother? An angel with outstretched arms and the message: “Fear not”? Was she seeing God? I don’t know. But I felt the presence of something.

As quickly as it started, it was over. Michelle relaxed back into her pillows. She closed her eyes and she slept.

I closed the door behind me and joined her family at the kitchen table. Someone put food in front of me. It may have been soup and bread. They stopped eating and put down their spoons as I told them what I’d just seen.

Several months before she died, Michelle wrote in her journal a piece she called her “Ramblings.” I reflect that “ramble” can mean either to “talk or write at length” or “to walk for pleasure, typically without a definite route.” Facing her end, Michelle rambled that she didn’t want to be buried. She didn’t want to take up land that could be used by her daddy’s horses. She wrote, “I wish to be cremated and rise with my smoke back to my God.”

Four years before that, the family had made a Jeep trek up the old

mining roads that crossed the 13,000-foot Imogene Pass, east of Telluride. As their home video panned across a valley, looking down an alpine field of columbine and Indian paintbrush, you can hear Michelle say, “This… is the most beautiful place in the whole wide world.”

In her Ramblings, she wrote that she didn’t care what was done with her ashes, but that “a field of wildflowers near Ouray, Colorado, is a wonderful memory for me.”

Months after her death, Anna returned to Colorado from her home in 
Pennsylvania, with a bronze plaque and a box of ashes in her carry-on.

In town, she bought a shovel and a bag of cement at the Ouray Hardware and Mercantile. She rented a Jeep and she left the next morning at first light. Below the Upper Camp Bird Mine, at the foot of the biggest boulder in a field of wildflowers on the Ouray side of the pass, Anna planted Michelle’s marker and spread Michelle’s ashes across the meadow.

Epilogue 1992

In 1992, a outdoors writer named David Middleton happened by chance into that alpine meadow, looking for wildflowers to photograph for his next book. He wrote:
There was nothing remarkable about this meadow. The flowers were beautiful and the location above this remote basin was magnificent, but it was no different than hundreds of other high meadows found in the Colorado Rockies.
I could see by its pristine nature that those who drove by this meadow seldom stopped, and those that did never walked more than a few feet from their car. And so it was more than just happenstance, I think, that I came upon in the middle of this meadow, in the middle of nowhere, unannounced and for no particularly good reason, a bronze plaque set among the blossoms with the name “Michelle White” engraved upon it.
I knelt and cleaned off the leavings of pikas and marmots and brushed off the leaves that hid Michelle’s story. I looked around. How did I find this? What made me stop here? There was no marker near the plaque and no trail to it. A huge boulder that once rolled from the cliffs above rested nearby, up slope, but there was nothing else to draw the attention of the passerby.

Michelle’s marker noted her hometown as State College, Pennsylvania, where David had (coincidentally) spent seven years as both student and teacher. Moved by what he’d found in this high meadow, he embarked on a quest. In the days before the ubiquity of the web, David Middleton did his research old style: he plowed through tattered Pennsylvania phone books in public libraries, and for weeks pestered directory assistance operators:

“What city please?
“State College, Pennsylvania”
“And what is the name?”
“White. Give me the number of the first name listed under White.”
“That would be Abby. The number is…”

And so went my Friday evening, starting with Abby and running right down the list: Addie, Alfie, Anthony, Betty, Bob - asking each if they knew of Michelle. Each answer was “no.” I tried the local paper without success. I tried the hospitals, the police station, the university, everything I could think of and each time no luck.

After weeks of searching, David finally found Anna, and he told her what drove him to such lengths to find her: “I felt Michelle was there,” he said, “sitting cross-legged on that big boulder, arms outstretched, welcoming me to her high mountain meadow.” Anna said she wasn’t surprised.

David later wrote a letter to Michelle:

I called your mom last night and told her I had found your meadow and then found you. I told her how I felt your presence and she understood. She told me all about you and I can’t say I was surprised. She is doing pretty well now, but she misses you a lot.
It’s time for me to go, Michelle. My journey isn’t over yet. There are many more ridges to cross and photos to shoot before I can sit and rest. You nourish my soul and always will. I’ll see you next summer high up on a ridge. Until then, rest well.

Click to go to David Middleton's story.


Unknown said...

Very moving...thanks for sharing.

Joe said...

Thank you, Steve. I'm glad I got to know Michelle for those couple months, and now have Anna and Harry to count as friends for going on a quarter century.

Unknown said...

Very moving indeed.

Joe said...

I think so, too. Thanks for taking the time.

Candy B said...

Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

Joe said...

Thanks, Candy. I'm sure the traveler/explorer in you connected with the story of this friend, who passed through here for a short while.