No matter what you do for an ill and dying friend or relative, always in hindsight you fear that it pales in proportion to what they deserved.
The experience of observing Oleta Duvall’s life and dying has moved me in ways I can’t explain. She lived with an unmatched energy and selflessness. She nursed ailing ones and cared for children; she gave of her resources and wisdom, but never gave up on anyone. She was sturdy as a rock in every phase of life and way beyond her time in spiritual discernment. Though we had much in common, I most exuberantly deferred to her counsel in everything. She was formidable.
Oleta overcame with gusto a devastating bout of cancer in 2007, and when it returned in the late summer of 2012, she explained, with quiet grace and acquiescence, to her friends and loved ones that she felt her life had been fulfilled and it was time to leave them. Without fanfare or treatment, she sold her car, moved back to her hometown of Decatur and hung out with one of her daughters, trained in nursing, whose house was within walking distance of mine.
Every week I baked cookies or bread and took them by with cards or other little gifts. If she felt like conversation I would stay a few minutes. As time went on, and she grew frailer and weaker, she would meet me at the door, graciously receive my offerings, and say she was all right, just sleepy.
I had told her from the start about my planned vigil for her and that she should have several more years to enjoy retirement. With that faraway look in her eyes, she smiled and thanked me, permitting my hope. To the end, Oleta was bothered more about our grief than her impending death and tried to prepare her children for it.
The last time I saw her, Oleta had been hospitalized briefly and was taking a breathing treatment alone in her hospital room. I thought I saw fear in her eyes, but she smiled and pointed for me to sit down. A week later, shortly before Thanksgiving, she passed away at her daughter’s home.
I had grieved feverishly when first she received the terminal diagnosis and had wondered how we could go on without her. But in the end, when she took leave of all earthly baggage, we were ready to share her sigh of relief and cheer her on to whatever lies ahead.
Often when one has lived and died nobly, but quietly, and there are no processions, no stately speeches, no lavish choirs, we feel we have failed at our last chance to honor them. But great spirits don’t need, nor do they want, pompous display. Oleta had made arrangements for everything: cremation and the simplest memorial visitation.
I do think of her often, as all her family must, but with inscrutable peace; for she died the same way she had lived. And as always, her spirit evinces what is good and right and makes you believe in it to.
Emily Dickinson penned the eulogy with these words:
Our journey had advanced.
Our feet were almost come
To that old fork in Being’s Road,
Eternity, by term.
Retreat was out of Hope.
Behind, a Sealed Route,
Eternity’s White Flag, before,
And God, at every Gate.