Today, my friend MJ is on her death bed up in Del Norte. She may not survive the week.
MJ is one of the Stalwarts, a small group of friends I can count on for . . . whatever. They lift me when I fall, dry my eyes when I cry, laugh at my jokes only when they’re funny, and tell me when I’m being a horse’s patoot (as if that ever happens).
I met MJ and her husband, the Shepherd, when they were hand-digging post holes for railroad ties. The ties were to become corner and anchor posts for a fence around their
40 acres, about a mile from my old place, just northwest of . After several days of passing them at work, as I ran errands to town for my own construction supplies, I pulled over near them and shouted out the window, “You guys need to get a life!” That was the beginning, about 15 years ago. Del Norte, Colorado
MJ and the Shepherd turned out to be the most mismatched, intriguing, and personable folks I’ve ever had the fortune to know. The Shepherd is a Native American, a Puebloan descendent of the Ancient Ones, once known as the Anasazi. He’s the type of quiet, methodical guy who would dig a post hole half way to the earth’s core just to do a good job, or in case he decided to herd elephants. But he also plays guitar and harmonica (at the same time), sings in a sweet, Mexican-influenced tenor and can tell stories, both real and embellished, in a charmingly casual, entertaining manner.
MJ is a Licensed Practical Nurse, but she’s also been a seamstress and clothing designer, leather worker, cattle hand, mother, photographer, cook and a few other occupations I’m sure I’m forgetting. She loves stories about UFOs and is an active pursuer of little green men and photographer of ghosts. A scrupulous practitioner of so-called western medicine, she is also an herbalist, ear candler and iridologist. She is as likely to compliment you on your aura as on your new boots.
Where she is garrulous, he is reserved. He is hand-tool traditional, she is internet modern. He likes fat, she likes lean (so help me). He, of course, is rail thin, she not so much. They both cook, they both do dishes, they both keep house. They ride horseback, they hike, they vacation with their travel trailer, sometimes back to his home village in the northern
mountains. Sometimes to her home stomping grounds, laid-back northern New Mexico . California
They met later in their lives, the Shepherd pushing sixty, MJ in her late forties. All I can say is, I would’a never put money on it. But they were both extraordinarily good for one another. The Shepherd rescued her from misery brought on by marital calamity, and she saved him from a life best described as dissipated.
For the past two years, though, MJ has been fighting an ovarian-introduced cancer that has now thrown its deadly cells throughout her body. She fought it, hard, with every form of medicine—western, traditional and exotic—at her disposal. For a while it looked like she might be gaining the upper hand, but last autumn the balance of power shifted.
Her care is complex, something that, as a nurse, she could accomplish and still stay active at home. But as her condition deteriorated, the procedures, and finally her total care, passed to a now-elderly Shepherd who would have gladly seen it through to the end.
MJ, however, displaying the love and wisdom that has marked their regard and forbearance for each other, assessed the increased risk for both of them, and elected to admit herself to a nursing facility. There she lies now, surrounded by family and friends, basking in that warmth as she awaits the death she has told them she welcomes.
And there I am not. It is a consequence of this lifestyle, with far-flung loved ones and a skin-of-the-teeth way of life.
Does it need saying? Well, then: MJ, I love you, I will miss you. Wish I was there.