For those of you who have been reading BaumBlog for a year or more, I'm sure you remember Dee Miller, who I met on the train from Denver to SF in early March 2019.
So the reason Dee was on the train, which I didn't mention a year ago, was that the doctor had told her she had end-stage kidney failure, and if she didn't get on dialysis, she would die soon. I know, I know. That doesn't motivate most people to get on a train. But Dee decided she didn't want to do dialysis, which for her would have meant being hooked up to a machine every night all night. I wouldn't say she was ready to die. But she was open to dying, rather than facing life on a machine. But she was NOT open to dying where she lived, the state that she calls COLDerado. Dee hates cold. HATES it. And she has lived her whole 53 years in a state which is often just that. She wanted to be warm when she faced death. And she wanted an adventure.
She decided to take all her money and a few clothes and get on a bus to Phoenix, Arizona. Everyone knows Phoenix is warm, when it isn't hot. She imagined she would get there and very promptly wind up in a hospice and face her death. So she went to Union Station in Denver to catch the bus. But the buses don't leave from Union Station. The bus station was six blocks away. Dee couldn't face the prospect of the walk. But she saw that a TRAIN was leaving the next morning for SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA! Everyone knows California is warm, right? At least the people who don't live in California think ALL of California is uniformly warm. She spent the night in Union Station.
The next morning I arrived to catch the train because, if you will remember, March 2019 was the time when the SECOND Boeing 737, with some new fancy do-hickey on it, mysteriously plunged into the ocean. The authorities had not yet grounded all the planes with the do-hickey, and the one I was scheduled to fly back to SF had that fatal do-hickey. So it was a good moment to take a train. There were about six of us waiting for the California Zephyr, and we had a chance to chat and get to know each other because the train was a tad late. Dee and I were the only ones going all the way to San Francisco.
So we bonded on the train. Dee is a very warm and open person. I invited her to stay at my house until she found a hospice. I took her to the San Francisco Zen Center, and it seemed that Dee had found a home. She loved Zen. The people there loved her. She started volunteering in the kitchen. She loved plunking herself down facing a wall and sitting zazen. I told her I was very envious of her ability to find a state of bliss, when, after many years of half-assed practice, my mind still skitters everywhere. She replied, "Bliss doesn't begin to describe it." Damn!
The Zen Center invited her to move in, and join the many already living there. Dee was thrilled. Sadly, she wasn't healthy enough to live at Zen Center long. She would be alright for a few days, and then she'd get sick, and then recover and get sick again. So, after the second time she got really sick, she moved back into my guest room.
That's when she started working on the coloring book. I think this is first picture she did:
Dee seemed so peaceful and focused, sitting at the table in the living room, surrounded by her paints and pencils -- soon to be joined by sequins and beads and seeds and yarn. I remembered that I had bought a coloring book on a vacation and joined her.
Carolyn, my best friend, collaborator, and upstairs neighbor was always part of the mix. She's a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and once a month hosted a meeting to explore different aspects of dying. It was called Deep Chat. Dee joined that group and made a real contribution. It was so great that she could continue being involved in Buddhism. And talking about death -- how perfect!
Sometimes Dee would be relatively fine and walking around. Then she would get sick and head for the Emergency Room at SF General. The first time, both of us went with her. Then it was just Carolyn accompanying her. Sometimes she went by herself. Neither Carolyn nor I were willing to focus our lives on Dee, and Dee never expected us to.
Meanwhile, Dee spent a lot of time talking on the phone to her friends and family back in Colorado. These seemed to be mostly joyous conversations, with lots of laughter. It was clear to me that many people back home loved her and missed her. And she cooked and kept working on her coloring book.
Eventually, we three realized that Dee was not dying as the doctor had predicted. As she put it, "Every time I get sick, I come back ninety percent." So she was very slowly inching down.
We had great moments together. There was Dee's fabulous Macaroni and Cheese for Thanksgiving. There was our joint birthday lunch (Dee turned 53 and I turned 73 on Nov. 27) at the Garden Court of the Palace Hotel. I think the highlight of her year was a performance of HAMILTON she saw with Carolyn and her husband Matthew.
There were great meetings of Deep Chat, one of which Dee facilitated, creating a structure that the group hadn't had before and loved; and sometimes there was just coloring.
Mostly, Dee and I got along well. But at a certain point, we did not, both of us angry at the other and not knowing how to work it out. Not even WANTING to work it out. So Dee moved upstairs to live the majority of her time in San Francisco with Carolyn and Matthew, which went very well. For the last month or so, Dee came back downstairs to me. Things between us were awkward a first, but slowly that same warm feeling came back.
Then, in February, Dee said she wanted to go back to Colorado as soon as possible. We all realized that, at some point, Dee would NOT be able to to travel at all. She wasn't coloring, she wasn't cooking much, and she could barely eat. Even riding in a car was difficult. After a year away, Dee was anxious to be with family and friends again -- even though they all lived in Colderado. She wanted to return by train because she was afraid if she flew, the sudden change in elevation of Denver would be too hard for her, since her congestive heart failure had gotten worse since she had left. Carolyn offered to accompany her, but then I realized I wanted to go back with Dee. Here's the four of us on our last night together.
The train was the perfect completion of Dee's and my adventure together. We had tiny compartments across from each other, sat and watched the country fall away..
Dee and I read and slept and chatted across the narrow corridor between us, the landscape flowing along out the window. Cathy, the wonderful sleeping car porter, brought Dee all her meals. She didn't have the strength to walk to the dining car. She could hardly eat anyhow. That problem had been developing for a long time. But she was cheerful and so glad to be going home. To me, this felt like precious time, even if I just read in my compartment while Dee slept in hers, both our doors open. Now I realize I should have taken some photos of Dee on the train. But the truth is, when I'm feeling especially close with someone, I forget all about taking photos.
Thirty-six hours after we left San Francisco, we arrived at Union Station in Denver. Dee's friend, also a Terry, was there to take her to the hotel she booked for her first night home. Dee and I hugged a long goodby. My niece Rose and her boyfriend Lawrence met me for dinner at a restaurant in Union Station. I spent the night at the hotel there, and flew back to SF the next morning.
I've talked and texted with Dee since she left. She's now staying with her mother, helping to take care of her step-father, who is ill. I was happy to hear that. Dee and her mother had been estranged for years. Her mother had reached out to her in San Francisco, through text and phone, and they were now reconciled. It's amazing to me that, now she's back with her people, she's taking care of others, as much as she can.
What a journey Dee and Carolyn and I had together. Here are some more pages from Dee's beautiful coloring book. I'm so glad she left it with me.