By Ginny Rodriguez
As many do, my husband Larry returned from a mission trip to El Salvador with stomach aches. How surprised we were to learn his ailment was not Montezuma’s revenge, but stage 4 colon cancer. My 70-year-old husband took the news with courage. Larry’s first decision was to not only do his best with the medical side of things but also with the emotional and spiritual part. He asked our pastor to come over and slap him around if he ever started whining. My husband soon told me that we were going to live in the now; we would not be borrowing trouble from the future or the past. And that is exactly how Larry negotiated the next two years of his life’s journey.
- In response to his doctor cancelling a surgery at the very last minute, announcing it would do him more harm than good, Larry invited the friends and family standing around his gurney out to breakfast!
- Later, Larry wanted to try the experimental medicines available only in Bethesda, Maryland . . . clear across the USA from our Portland, Oregon home. He said that our trips every two weeks would also be vacations, and he made it so . . . little getaways for the two of us.
Larry’s second decision was an early entry into Hospice care when the latest scans showed the medications were no longer working for him. Hospice not only provided us wonderful physical and emotional support, they gave us information on what to expect in the dying process. They were available 24/7 for questions. Hospice care in our home enabled us to have many gatherings with family and friends, special parties, tender and important conversations with each other and many other folks as well. People visited in small and big groups to encourage us. However, visitors were often uplifted themselves because of how Larry sought to listen and interact with them. He was the kind of person who wanted to connect with people, but also challenge some of their assumptions and ways of thinking . . . doing it in a way that showed he cared.
Larry’s third decision really threw me! “Ginny,” he said, “I’m thinking of donating my body to Oregon Health Sciences University for the medical student training. I want you to think about it, and if you don’t want to do it, we won’t. Please think about it.” My dear husband had caught me off guard again! To me, the only people who donated their bodies were the destitute or those who had no family to claim their body. No one I had ever known had done such a thing.
My four grandparents had had funeral services and were buried in cemeteries. Larry’s folks and little brother had been buried the same way. My parents decided on cremation which worked well. When they couldn’t agree where their ashes should go, we promised to put some in both places. Not following either family’s way of doing things made me feel unsure and a little off balance. I hesitated, but how could I deny my dear one’s request? It was just like him to do something for others as a way to teach, even in his last act. Larry had always been interested in medicine and had been in a couple of ongoing medical studies. His entire career, he had loved being a high school teacher and coach. This was so like Larry and the way he had lived his life. After I’d prayed and talked with a couple of family members, I knew it was the right thing for him that we do this. So into uncharted territory we went. I loved the gracious, thoughtful way that he had included me in this decision.
Larry was able to be at home with family and die peacefully in a circle of love one April morning in 2010. Our daughter and niece had helped me keep vigil through the previous night. As planned, our son called OHSU, and we waited for Larry’s body to be picked up. I expected a couple of medical students to come, but the university sent professionals. They came all dressed up at 7:30 am. There was no way I could just let them take him, so I told them a little about who he was and the love that surrounded him. After putting him on the gurney, we all followed 2 by 2 down the hallway and out the front door to the hearse. It reminded me of movies I’d seen with the group following a casket to the cemetery. Somehow that was reassuring.
Our family held a memorial service for Larry two weeks later in the high school auditorium. Of course, it was hard, but it was also sweet to be with so many caring loved ones. About 600 people came to honor Larry and our Lord. Because there were no expenses for his burial or cremation, I was able to cater a meal for 120 people after the service and give gifts to our children and his siblings as well.
To my surprise, the University informed us that they would also be holding a memorial service in December for all the families of body donors. We were invited to send a photo to be included in their video and come to hear students and professors speak of their learning experiences. By December, I was more than ready to hear about and honor Larry again. So often people don’t talk of your loved one—not wanting to upset the widow—but I wanted to speak of him, hear his name, and remember the special person he was. I was pleasantly surprised to arrive with a few family members and be graciously welcomed with a program and Forget-Me-Not seeds. The room had a small stage with seating for about 250 people, and it was nearly full. They presented a slide show of donors’ photos with music and poetry. They also shared how special it was to receive the gift and learn from those who had been so generous with their remains. Family members were given opportunity to speak to the group as well. Afterwards there was an appetizer and dessert reception. It was so helpful to have that afternoon to remember Larry and his generosity. I was impressed and pleased that the medical school beautifully honored our loved ones and their choice to better the lives of others through the education of the next generation of doctors.
The following June, we received Larry’s ashes from the University. This was still another opportunity to gather with our family, have a meal, and speak of special memories. We shared ashes with anyone who wanted them, and then took the rest of them out to the cemetery and clandestinely sprinkled them on his parents’ and brother’s graves. A sister read a poem. I took my wedding ring and moved it to another finger. Later I sprinkled my portion of his ashes in our rose garden, adding a couple of new rose bushes.
I am very thankful for the multiple opportunities we were given to honor Larry during the first year after his death. His legacy lives on in many ways—even in others hearing of his final gift of his remains and wanting to do the same. If you are interested in learning more, please consult https://www.ohsu.edu/body-donation.