The Universal Notebook: Death of a wild woman

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In mid-September my dear friend and former Maine Times colleague Phyllis Austin, Maine’s best environmental reporter, called to tell me that her life was coming to an end.

She asked if I would be willing to speak at her memorial service, specifically to talk about her as a journalist. I will do so on Jan. 23, 2017. But right now I’d like to talk about how she died.

When I went down to her waterfront home on Mere Point in Brunswick, I found a very tired and weak Phyllis, but she still had the clear-eyed determination that marked everything she did personally and professionally.

She gingerly curled up on the sofa with Lark, the latest in a line of dachshund companions that started, I believe, with Scout. We talked about what lay ahead. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and it hardly seemed possible that Phyllis was measuring her life now not in years or months, but weeks. She expected to be gone by the end of the year, probably sometime in November.

Phyllis had been in rough shape for a few years, suffering mightily with complications from a gruesome accident back in 1984, in which she was impaled by a branch while skiing. Thirteen surgeries over the next 30 years and the fact that she stayed in shape in order to hike and climb mountains all over Maine and the British Isles kept her going. But over the past year she had been in and out of the emergency room with excruciating pain. The pain and the disability had taken its toll. Where once she had been a fierce 110 pounds soaking wet, she was now a frail 80 pounds, if that.

Phyllis said she could no longer do any of the things she loved – write, hike, climb mountains, travel, garden, so she had decided her life was no longer worth living. We talked about her plans for end of life, but they hardly seemed real, since she was more peaceful and upbeat than I had seen her in months. Phyllis actually apologized for feeling so well. The last time I saw her alive she was laughing. It was as though she had moved beyond pain and suffering with her resolve to embrace her own mortality.

“You got the best of me today,” she emailed that evening. “Four more people came, and that wrecked me. Thanks for coming and participating in a service, whenever that may happen.”

I let four or five of our old Maine Times colleagues know about Phyllis’ situation, but when they wrote to express their love, she was at first taken aback. She asked me not to tell anyone else. I felt terrible, as though I had betrayed a confidence. But warm words from old friends and their deep admiration for Phyllis as a journalist, a woman, and a mentor quickly melted her heart, and I was back in her good graces.

On Nov. 1, when I emailed to ask how she was and what I could do for her, Phyllis replied, “I don’t have any ‘good days’ anymore; I’m worn out of all my worsening conditions. I’ll let you know when I can see you if you have time to come down for a brief last visit. Thanks for checking on me. Love, Phyllis.”

She said in that email that she was planning to stop eating and drinking on Nov. 14, her 75th birthday. Lest you think I am betraying yet another confidence, Phyllis was quite adamant that her obituary explain how she had died, so that others would know that it was possible to make a deliberate decision to die with dignity.

In fact, she insisted on the following lines in the obituary that writer Bunny McBride wrote for and with her:

“But in 2016 she concluded that her body simply couldn’t take any more medical trauma and she could no longer bear severe pain that had no end in sight. Considering that and her inability to continue mountain hiking, she felt it was time to let go of this life. She stopped eating and drinking, and within a week slipped away peacefully at her home on Mere Point in Brunswick, encircled by close friends.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

The day Phyllis died, I went down to Mere Point to see her. She was laid out on her bed, fully dressed as though about to take to the hills, her body adorned with flowers.

In death, Phyllis was gray, gaunt and gone, more essence than substance. But her spirit filled that room like the cry of the loon fills the Maine woods. Phyllis had taken off. She was now wild and free.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.