I’ve started this column four times, and none of them have worked. I don’t know whether to blame how physically and emotionally tired I am, or how complicated the story I want to tell is. I know the bottom line of what I want to say: Thank you. Maybe I should go back to the beginning.
Lizann Bassham and I met during my first year of seminary. It was 35 years ago. Lizann was the “experienced one” – with one entire quarter of classes under her belt. She was exactly a year and a half older than me. I have no idea why we bonded, but we did. Sociologist and psychologists would have said we had little in common. I grew up in gentrified New England, in a community that valued education. Lizann grew up in the back country of Trinity County, California, in a community that valued hard, physical work. I understood myself to be a gay man and she understood herself to be a mostly-straight woman. I don’t remember if we had any classes together, and I took my second year of seminary off-campus doing an internship (which meant I graduated a year after she did). We both lived on campus, but in different dorms. She grew up experiencing several different Christian traditions and exploring her mystical side from the beginning of her teenaged years. I was part of the frozen chosen of New England Congregationalism. The only thing we had in common was a sense of call from God to help lead the church. Somehow we became intensely close friends and stayed that way for 35 years.
This means that Lizann has been my dearest friend throughout my adulthood. She helped see me into wholeness, receiving my deepest doubts and shames and holding them as sacred. I can’t imagine what my life would be like had I taken a year off between college and seminary or had I picked a different school. I’m sure I would have received a fine education, but I doubt my friendship with Lizann would have developed – and I can’t imagine my life without it.
But now I have to.
Toward the end of August, 2017, Lizann was diagnosed with Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma. She was enrolled in a phase 2 clinical trial for an experimental immunotherapy treatment at UCSF, excited about being part of discovering a new treatment that uses the defenses of one’s own body, the immune system, to detect and remove the body’s own cancerous cells. The treatment wasn’t just about her own cancer. It was about the neck and head cancers ancestors and relatives in her family had had. And it was about all the people to come who would face cancer in their own lives.
On Thursday, April 19, Lizann sent me a text asking me to come to Sebastopol. She was having a significant health crisis. I thought things were under control when I left on the following Saturday to return to Fremont to preach on Sunday, April 22. When I returned to Sebastopol that Sunday evening, things were not under control. Complications of the immunotherapy had become life threatening. Pain management was not working. I thought she was going to die that evening. We called the ambulance to get her to the hospital so at least her pain could be managed.
She was hospitalized for the following week, and I stayed in Sebastopol taking my turn as part of the family, providing her with the support she needed to recover. She needed a shorthand to explain why this man who wasn’t her husband was spending the night in her hospital room. She took to introducing me to the hospital staff as “my gay husband, Jeff, not to be confused with my legal husband, Jeff.” If this shorthand was met with a quizzical look, I’d say, “I’m her Will and she’s my Grace.” We are and always will be family.
I returned to Fremont at the end of that week to lead worship on April 29, and Lizann was discharged from the hospital. My planned vacation started after that worship service, and I returned to Sebastopol to be part of her at-home care team. She kept getting stronger, and I returned to Fremont for the last couple days of my vacation. The following week was good. I was confident that the crisis was over. I returned to Sebastopol the evening of May 17, just to check in and offer my love and support in a physically present way.
May 17 was also a day for doctors visits at UCSF. Lizann found out that because of the complications from the immunotherapy, she was out of the clinical trial. She also learned that she was too weak and the cancer was too advanced for any traditional treatment to be anything but palliative – and her pain was again being controlled by medication. Such treatment might buy her a little time, but would come with uncomfortable side effects. She was going to die from the cancer. She opted to stop all treatments except pain management. She also decided to stop nutrition and water. If she wasn’t going to be able to rid her body of the cancer, it was time for her to die. Through tears in her eyes on Friday morning when she made these decisions, Lizann pleaded with me to stay. Of course, I said, “Yes.” What else would I say to my dearest friend when she asked me to help her on her journey to death? I called Pastor Brenda and asked her to preach on May 20, telling her that I needed to stay in Sebastopol.
Being the amazing pastor that she is, Brenda said yes, and then on the following Monday, she said she would preach again on May 27. I contacted our Moderator, Jim Thomas, to explain what was going on. His simple response was, “We’ll take care of things at this end.”
Tonight, as I write this, Lizann is unconscious, her breathing is irregular, and we are waiting for that breathing to stop. I wasn’t at all surprised that she managed to move this process forward. Even someone as weak as she is can last for a couple weeks without hydration. But Lizann is ready to go. She has willed herself to go. She has been calling on her ancestors all week to come get her. I do not expect her to be inside her body by tomorrow morning.
This has been an amazing spiritual, emotional, and physical journey. I am so grateful to have been asked to participate. While I offer this thanks, it is not the thanks I want to offer in this column. The thanks I want to offer in this column are to you. You have blessed me with eleven work days in the past five weeks to be here with my beloved Lizann, to help see her through the worst of cancer, and the best of dying.
Editorial Note: Lizann Bassham died on Sunday, May 27.