Over a decade ago I began working at Lifespa – the spa and salon inside Lifetime Fitness. This was my second job as a hairdresser and in the year before coming to work there I’d been a member of the gym itself. I remember mentioning the new gym membership to a few others when I first opened my membership there and being met with a response of, “Oh that place? That’s where the beautiful people go.” I had no idea how true that would prove to be. I hadn’t yet met Leah Burris.
I worked at LifeSpa for a little under a decade and while I was there I occupied a few different work stations which led me to having different neighbors while I worked. There was at one point a remodel of the spa and also a shuffling of the work roster and when all the drywall dust had settled I found myself in a work station next to Leah Burris. Almost immediately, I’d found my work wife! At first our relationship was shaped a bit like student-teacher. She helped me understand the spa’s line of color and helped get me out of a few color mishaps. I recall others asking her for her ideas on color formulation and then, for who-knows-what reason, would not take the advice. She didn’t like that very much. Her reasoning was is if you thought she was worthy of roping in and she honored your request enough to engage, then you need to do what she suggests. She and I differed in that. I was always more okay with telling people later, “I told you so.”
Leah and I were very different in so many ways. She was often conservative, Republican, religious, reserved. In contrast, I was progressive, Democrat, spiritual, and open-book. Surely there were times when we butted heads but far more often than not we complimented each other through our differences. We could disagree with each other wholly and keep right on moving. She and I would toss ideas to each other and test the other’s response. We guided each other and helped to grow each other in ways that were so evolutionary.
Leah was devout and sure of her place within the Christian denomination she practiced. And yet she knew when rules ought to be bent. Because of some of her health concerns she maintained good care with her doctors, but she also would go to “Chinese medicine” doctors, too. She read the Bible often and also read lots of books by Christian authors, but she also enjoyed going to psychics and strongly believed in other non-traditional Christian ideas like pre-birth. In fact, she loved visiting those who can see “beyond” and she told me on a number of occasions that she was very sure that her children had lived before this life and also that the three of them had known each other in earlier lives. She felt this so strongly and it brought peace to her heart as well as an even deeper connection to her reason for living – her children. She and I had fun ear candling one time. We also once went to Chicago for an long weekend and for that whole weekend left her car parked directly in front of a “No Parking” sign (That was in 2009 – we’d already been friends for years by that point). And after my husband and I bought our condo, which happened around Passover that year, she came over and that night we did a Native American sage smudging of my new home while chanting Hindu prayers, followed by ritualized foot washing and reading of biblical passages, followed by communion which was of matzo bread wafer and lemon drop martinis as the blood of Christ. (To be clear, she had brought red wine to be the blood of Christ, but spilled his blood on the sidewalk outside when she dropped the bottle and so the lemon drop martinis – originally intended as a housewarming gift – became our blood of Christ.) Leah always knew when to do the right thing as well as when the right thing wasn’t “right.” For the record, that was the yummiest communion I’ve ever taken.
After a number of years, when I decided to go back to school, I went to part-time hours at the spa. And after completing school I found work at an outpatient cancer treatment center, at which time I decreased my hours to weekends only. As exhausted as I was to work so much, my favorite day of the week was always Saturday when I could work beside Leah. After two years of working weekends at the spa, I stepped away altogether and my direct interaction with Leah was even tougher to make happen. Still, we stayed in touch and we lived only a few minutes from each other which was also convenient on a number of occasions.
I learned a lot while at the cancer clinic and earlier in 2016 when Leah told me of her liver resection I was optimistic, but very concerned. Often the worst part this kind of thing, for me, is seeing my loved ones feel confused and powerless. People often don’t know which questions to ask or what options and resources are really available to them and I’m happy to advocate for them and help guide as I am able. Leah was able to tell me what she understood about the coming biopsies and potential diagnoses, etc… And she was very clear about her fear. I’m a realist in most cases and the experience I carry in oncology had me scared enough for both of us, but when my friend said to me, “Josh – tell me things will be okay. Tell me I’ll be alright” that’s exactly what I told her. And to a degree, I did believe it to be a possible outcome – just not very likely. That was probably the only time ever that I wasn’t fully honest with my sweet friend.
She had the liver resection early in the year and really from that time onward could just almost not catch a break. One issue after another arose and there were so many days when keeping her head above water was about all she could do. There were a few times when I either brought her to the hospital or visited her there or stayed with her overnight there. I remember one of the times she was in the hospital – the time I stayed overnight to make sure she wasn’t alone. She had just previously been given a short time to live and at one point during that stay we thought that time has been shortened further. While in the hospital right then, we revisited some funerary plans she’d given me. For almost as long as we’d known each other Leah had been giving me snip-its of requests for her funeral. One day she might tell me “I want there to be corn dogs,” and then months later might add, “… and cotton candy. But absolutely NOT my mother’s potato salad. She makes it for EVERYTHING.” These plans really piled up over our friendship and soon I had to write them down to keep them all straight. They included music she wanted, colors, flower preferences, food wants, and other things. Again and again she returned to her mother’s dreaded potato salad. She admitted that it was good salad, but was practically a cliche by now and requested of me to do everything in my power to prevent her from bringing it to Leah’s funeral – and that if it made an appearance, I was to dispose of it. (Fortunately, Leah had mentioned to her husband and her sister that “Josh has the plans” and she assured me they would offer support to make these requests reality.) I felt fortunate that her pastor made a visit on the day I stayed over with Leah at the hospital and he was supportive of her expressed wishes. (NOTE: I had a friend ready to make an appearance at the funerary meal JUST for the purpose of helping me get rid of that potato salad! Coincidentally, this friend also had already started giving me her own funerary wants, so she was more than happy to help with Leah’s!)
It was in that hospital room that day that we discussed what it means to fight. I encouraged her to look at the whole picture and its potential implications – that she was going to die from cancer and that her death may come before she wants it to. She said right then that she was afraid to acknowledge that kind of thing because it felt like resignation – something her pastor agreed with. As tough as it was for me at the time, I had to openly disagree with both of them. I explained that, in my view, there’s never been an instance of fighting something blindly. No boxer goes into the ring without preparing and training and learning about his opponent. No boxer enters the ring to fight without the full acceptance of the fact that the fight will probably be very painful and might not go well. I tried to encourage her – that to truly fight meant facing the obstacle squarely and then moving forward with as much bravery and strength as could be gathered. Her response to this was to turn her head to give me this amazed open-mouthed look, let out a short breath, and then say, “Wow, Josh. Thanks for calling that out like that.” I just wanted to cry. It would have been much easier and for more preferable for me to just flatter Leah’s pastor and say anything sugar-coated to comfort my friend. But that’s not me. I don’t like being considered the bad guy, but if someone wants to call me that because I was honest or because I refuse to contribute to behavior or thinking I know is not helpful, then I’ll just be the bad guy. Leah knew I would always be honest with her.
I recall one summer day when I came after work to see her. A nurse was just leaving and I entered with a Starbuck’s treat for Leah. I could tell her spirits were down and she seemed on edge. After the nurse left I asked, “Leah, what’s up?” Her answer was, “It’s been a tough day, Josh.” Her labs were a little wonky, pain was extra tough to manage, she’d been confused on some things, visitors were making her tired, and at some point she’d gotten her foot wrapped in bedding and it caused her to fall – which caused her to panic that her pain pump had come undone or something. To tell me all of this she was sitting on her bed and I listened from a place on the floor next to her bed. She started sobbing. On the surface, she was crying about having a rough day but I’d seen that kind of cry come from others in the past so many times and I knew it was because of something deeper. In her heart, she knew what she wasn’t prepared to say or accept. All I could do was crawl up into the bed and hug her – and at the time that’s all she wanted.
In the weeks after that day, I witnessed Leah have a thorough mix of really bad days and really good days. There was a day in all this when she and I did some gardening. She actually dug stuff up out of the ground! We brought the cacti she’d kept inside all winter and spring to be outside and then we arranged some sea shells among them as decoration. She also had this ganglion orchid which was in an upstairs room – her sewing room which would eventually serve as her hospice room. I have a really green thumb but orchids I’ll kill every time – her’s was doing so well! That day, we brought it outside and hanged it from a place on a branch in a tree in her backyard where it could easily be tended to but also not be cooked by Indiana’s harsh summer sun. One of the last things we did that day was to take some pictures by the wisteria growing off the side of her deck. It’s matured so nicely and was blooming all over the place. That was a great day with Leah which will never leave me.
Days like that, though, weren’t something she could manage often and she’d tell me that often just having others over to say hi or help with house work was taxing to her. Many times I could see that after about an hour of hanging out with her, her energy level was visibly lower than when I’d arrived and soon after that I was likely to hear something like, “Josh, I need to rest. I think it’s time for you to go now.” Still, she did the best she could, considering her health and even when she was tired she enjoyed seeing others.
I remember, too, when I came to see Leah once and her eyes were really yellow. Like, almost highlighter yellow. She had gone in for a chemo treatment and her labs were off, bilirubin was too high. This gave her oncologist pause – as it well should have. I was told they ran additional labs and did a body scan only to find out that all the chemo prior to that point had been basically ineffective. This was lost time that Leah really didn’t have to spare and now, because the chemo was not effective, her cancer hadn’t diminished at all. She was running out of time. It was shortly thereafter that Leah, her husband, and her children took a vacation to Florida. There were a few hiccups on the trip, but I’m told it was a mostly enjoyable experience. It seems to have come at just the right time because almost immediately after getting home again she was taken to the hospital. I might be remembering things wrong, but I think her daughter explained to me that they returned on a Friday and by Saturday afternoon she had been admitted. There was a point sometime late Friday or early Saturday when Leah raised the alarm and wanted to be taken to the hospital because “something wasn’t right.” I think Leah was in the hospital for most of a week that time around and when she was discharged it was to go home to be in hospice care.
This troubled me, obviously. I have known people to be put on hospice and be gone less than 24hrs later. And I have known people, one small Mexican woman comes to mind, who are put on hospice and then live “too long” and have to be taken off hospice, and then end up being put on and off of hospice care numerous times – living long beyond what was expected. I think Leah lived for around another week after that point, give or take a couple days. From the time I learned she was put on hospice I did my best to come over every day. I’d usually text prior to arriving, although I know it was unnecessary because her husband had made it clear to me that I was welcome anytime I felt like coming and he even said if I felt like coming at 3am that would be no trouble.
I knew time was up… Leah was hardly conscious – her pain medication kept her sleeping most of the time. As such, she wasn’t really consuming nutrients a healthy person would need to survive, let alone someone battling cancer. During those days, she would come out of her sleep and indicate she was thirsty or she might engage a little in conversation, just bits and phrases mostly. Communication was a strain for her and I recall one time shortly after I’d been coming every day, when I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying and asked her to repeat. Her response was that she perked up for a second, snapped her head quickly in my direction and sharply said, “SHIT!” (This was an exclamation of frustration not an indication of a bowel movement! LOL)
As days passed, I saw my friend utterly wilt. Seeing her skinnier than ever was something I’d grown used to since February but she was increasingly gaunt and skeletal. Less and less responsive. I would talk to her and hold her hand and at least once every day while I was there, if she came awake, I would grab the opportunity to tell her of my presence and let her know that I loved her. “Hey Leah! It’s Josh – I’m here and I love you!” In the first days of her hospice she would answer me back clearly but a little drowsy, “Hi – I love you.” As the days passed, her responses were increasingly blurred and less frequent. Then, her moments of being awake also became far less frequent. I would sit beside her for hours each day after work and pray in my own way or meditate.
During this time, I stayed in touch with my local Heartfulness preceptors who were familiar with Leah and it was around the time that I began sensing my friend’s “departure” and I asked that our conditions be read. Lightness was perceived. Peace, stillness, a state of being light and not weighed down. My own heart had begun to feel a stifling and helpless urgency – I knew she was leaving her body and when I checked for mottling, I saw the beginning signs of this. I knew it would be soon.
Leah passed near the end of July (June 21, 1968 – July 26, 2016). The day she left her body, I sensed that I needed to work from the Burris home and so I went to work that morning just to tell the others that would be working remotely. I got there, connected to the wifi, and then our mutual friend Candice arrived. She and I exchanged greetings and caught each other up on what we understood of Leah’s condition. She’ mentioned that she and Leah had talked about doing a few different artsy kinda projects – but these never were started. There was an idea of doing something with thumb prints or finger prints and Candice had with her right then a few art supplies that were meant for the project. But the ink wasn’t right and so we were stuck. We decided that someone would have to run to the art store to get different supplies, but we also wanted to try to keep it a surprise for Leah’s children – which was part of the idea of the project – to complete it and then surprise the children. We both noticed the progression of Leah’s mottling and understood that time was not on our side. Her rate of breathing was already beginning to slow noticeably. We had a gut feeling that we needed to act quickly – so we did.
By the time we decided to go to the store, Leah’s pastor and good church friend, Olesya, had arrived. We made them promise not to rat us out because we wanted to honor Leah’s wish that the project be a surprise. Her pastor was quiet in his agreement, but her friend Olesya had no trouble supporting us. So Candice and I disappeared for about an hour running to a few places and getting various things we thought we would need – changing our mind about a dozen times in the process. At one point, we found ourselves opening paints in a craft store and noticed when it was already too late that we were standing right next to a sign telling us we were on camera and that we could be prosecuted. We didn’t care. We were on a mission. And, in fact, when we saw that sign we just laughed until we cried. Had she been able, Leah would have been right there with us doing the very same thing.
We returned to the Burris home, trying to act as nonchalant as we could so as not to tip off her kids to what we were up to. Dashing up to Leah’s hospice room, we closed the door and worked as quickly as we could – with Olesya and Pastor Wade watching us the whole time. We were inking up Leah’s thumb and putting her thumb print on small pieces of wood and paper. The toughest part of it all was cleaning her thumb after we’d finished. By the time we’d returned from our errand Leah’s hands and arms were very clearing mottling and her breathing was slower than it was before we left. In the short time it took us to finish the project her breathing had slowed even more and the mottling had crept up her arms, till just above her elbows. Right as we were wrapping up the cleaning, Leah’s daughter came in and wondered what we were up to. We did our best to avoid answering, but really just made ourselves look more guilty. You could tell Hazel (Leah’s daughter) trusted us but also wanted very much to know what was going on. We couldn’t bring ourselves to tell her that we knew her mom would likely pass soon and were making a surprise her mom wanted to make before she became too sick. Instead, we just said the last part of that.
Hazel came further into the room, looked over her mom almost like she was inspecting her comfort. She adjusted her pillow a little and then gave us another fishy look like she knew we were being ornery, and then she left the room and ended up going outside to greet some others who were arriving. While Hazel was making her way to the front yard, the four of us still in the room let out a sigh of relief that we’d finished the project without getting busted by Hazel. We no sooner acknowledged among ourselves that Leah was breathing slower than ever when Leah took her last breath.
I noticed, grabbed her right hand and arm as Candice and I looked at each other, and called her name. Candice, Olesya, and Pastor Wade were all right there and almost immediately Pastor went to the doorway to call for everyone. And just like that my friend Leah’s life in her body ended.
It was just at that time and while Pastor Wade was calling for Leah’s immediate family that her daughter Hazel saw a butterfly near where she was standing outside. I think she had just remarked with the friends she was talking to that butterflies are something her mom loved and how they are symbolic and what joy they bring. Of course, that sunny moment in the front yard was brought short by the pastor’s call. Leah’s husband and two children rushed in and surrounded her – the rest of us giving them the space to draw as near to her as they could. They all reacted in ways that were so sweetly their own. I saw Max look at his mom’s body and watched him melt. This young man, the very definition of “strapping,” had lost to the Universe his mom – the woman who cheered at his sporting events (I recall her reaching out to me on multiple occasions JUST to brag about his wrestling success) and was surely his life’s biggest fan. Hazel, when she saw her mom, manifested utter shock and disbelief. She vocalized her disbelief, too – and she wasn’t wrong: It’s utterly unfair for the Universe to call her mom back to our Source. The two had big plans and big ideas and big goals that were shared between the two of them which were meant to build and express their mother-daughter bond. The woman in Hazel’s life who was closest to her and was intended to help Hazel navigate through the trickiness of becoming who she’s destined to become was suddenly not there. I remember right then thinking of how deeply Leah loved Hazel and of all the times she spoke of Hazel’s sweet but strong-as-steel soul. Max and Hazel, according to Leah, were ancient souls and she told me over and again how honored and mystified she was that the two had chosen her to be their mom here in this life. Dan, Leah’s husband, was right in the middle. The pain on his face was crystalline. His breath was stolen from him in that moment. He’s proof that even knowing full well what’s coming won’t necessarily soften the blow of the impact. In the same way he’d been strong for his family in the past, Dan stood as strong as any man losing his wife could – giving his children the space to grieve and comforting them however he could right then. He exhibited a delicately fine balance of letting his own pain show, and pushing through it for the sake of his children’s immediate needs.
Naturally, to be witness of such a sad and intimate moment was excruciating. It immediately reminded me of familial losses – for me, in those moments, the greatest pain hasn’t been the direct loss of the loved one. For me, the most painful parts of those experiences was seeing that loss on the faces of others. I can recall vividly my father’s face when his dad slipped away. My heart broke for my dad. The same is true when I remember my maternal grandmother trying to accept the death of my mother. I was upset, sure. But I was busy helping my mother over and seeing my grandmother’s face soaked from grief was practically paralyzing to me.
I never worry about the “dearly departed.” Sometimes I miss then greatly. Sometimes I have to wait till very late at night when no one else is awake, or else maybe to go to a park where I can sit in my car and cry my own pain out. But mostly, on most days, I feel closer to them after death. They’re sometimes practically as palpable after being freed from their failing bodies. I know they don’t suffer – only we, here, left behind seem to. A year after her physical death I know my sweet friend is closer than ever – to me, and her son, and her daughter, and her widower. And she’s closer to everyone else.
I can feel her often and sometimes I can almost hear her. She and I still are proud of her children as we see them grow and change. Although I’m not as involved in their lives as I would like, she and I still watch life flow as we used to and more and more we just smile and shake our heads, just like we used to as we watched life pass the big windows we worked in at the gym spa. Together we watch life’s unending hilarity and we look at each other with side glances, smile, and start giggling to ourselves. She and I still follow the moon together and we love it still. I’d like to be able to hug my sweet friend and hear her audibly say my name the way she used to, but I’m not sad. She’s closer now than before and more alive than we can imagine.
In closing this very long post (I’m sorry!), I want to share something stolen from an Eckhart Tolle book while in a bookstore recently. I had been writing this post and editing it all day when I went to the bookstore, grabbed the book from the shelf, and stared flipping through the pages – randomly landing on a page, the timing of which was just too perfect. Tolle says, “Death is not an anamoly or the most dreadful of all events as modern culture would have you believe, but is the most natural thing in the world, inseparable from and just as natural as its polarity – birth. Remind yourself of this when you sit with a dying person. It is a privilege and a sacred act to be present at a person’s death as a witness and companion.”
Thanks for reading.
Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha | Aum Shanti
Leah and I by the wisteria, being silly
Leah holding the wisteria for my picture – we both absolutely loved this plant!