May 17, 2011

24 years my senior, I never expected for Marisa and I to become so close.  I originally met Marisa during my volunteer work at Carewell.  She was a frequent attendee and ended up participating in several of my group Life Coaching sessions.  Although a bit skeptical about coaching at first, she came to be one of my biggest advocates over time.

When my coaching at Carewell ended in April of 2010, I realized that I desperately missed seeing Marisa on a regular basis.  We remedied this by setting up a monthly tea date for us to remain connected.  At first I wasn’t sure how to define our interactions – roughly half our time was spent with me coaching her and the remaining half was full of me getting sage wisdom and advice from this brilliant woman.  We both just rolled with it and enjoyed what was unfolding between us…

Our ‘tea dates’ became cherished time that we both looked forward to each month.  Unfortunately, the closer we got to Christmas, the greater toll Marisa’s cancer seemed to take on her.  As she weakened, I had a growing urge to spend more and more time with her, wanting to deepen this relationship as much as possible in the remaining months that she had left.  Our ‘tea dates’ went from monthly to weekly and changed location based on her condition.  When she could no longer make the 2 block journey to the coffee shop, we simply relocated our ‘tea dates’ to her living room.  And as the winter turned to spring and she could no longer get out of bed, she humbly allowed me to visit her there.

It’s hard to say who took more away from this friendship, as we both seemed to receive exactly what we needed from the strange pairing.  Right before she died, we both had a chance to articulate the impact we’d had on each other’s life.  Here’s what she said about me:

  • I helped her determine what she wanted to leave as her legacy through the coaching work we did together. She came up with the idea of using her Interior Design Background (she had studied at Parsons School of Design) to decorate the hospice rooms for cancer patients at a low-income hospital in town.
  • I introduced her to the website, which enabled her to plan her funeral in detail. Not only did this relieve her family of the pressure of putting this together last minute, but it also served as a tool through which she could reflect on her life and how she wanted to be remembered.
  • I gave her permission to openly talk about death and dying whenever she needed to. I found myself surprisingly comfortable talking about this topic and since she didn’t have many people who were open to talking about this for long periods of time, it became a frequent part of our conversations.  I know she appreciated having that safe space in which she could process all that was happening to her.

On my end, I gained strength and wisdom from her:

  • Profound relationship with God
  • Reverence for Motherhood
  • Unwavering belief in what I was capable of
  • Courage in the face of death

A week and a half before she died, I had the chance to visit her in the hospital.  Intuitively, I knew this was the last time I would see her alive and I planned to make the most of it and say everything I needed to in order to feel closure.  In coordinating the visit with her husband the day before, he warned me that she was not very coherent but would *probably* recognize me if I got up really close to her face and told her who I was.  I could then expect a short flicker of recognition and then she would go back to a sedated state.

I was 100% okay with this and fully expected that scenario to play out.  Little did I know that Marisa had a miracle in store for us that day.  When I arrived at her room at 1 PM on a Friday and pushed open the door, I was shocked to see her fully present.  And not only was she fully awake, but fully there in spirit as well.  This could have been a ‘tea date’ we had 6-9 months ago, never mind a week before her death!

Not one to miss out on an opportunity, I told her that I was there to talk her ear off and entertain her, but that if she started to feel tired, she should just say the word and I would be on my way.  And talk we did!  Although her words were a bit slurred and whispered by this point, I found that I adjusted after a few minutes and could get most of what she was saying.  I skipped all the pretense and went straight to the real stuff since I knew our time was precious.  We talked about the pain, if she was afraid to die, and what she was most worried about for after her passing.  There was also plenty of time for the happy stuff too – memories about her family, what she learned from Cancer, the impact of our friendship.  It was honest, beautiful and 100% infused with God’s presence.  I know that the memory of that visit will remain emblazoned in my mind for years to come – it was just that profound and sacred of an experience.

Those 90 minutes felt like a blissful eternity (yes, she was so alive and present that I eventually kicked MYSELF out after 90 minutes because I could see her fading but knew she didn’t want me to go).  As I sat next to the bed stroking her hair, I couldn’t help but smile as she doled out last minute mothering advice to me (Do breast feed!  Give your child a name with MEANING!  And so on and so forth.)  And when I walked out of that room, I felt 100% closed relationship-wise.  I knew that if she died tomorrow, I wouldn’t have a single regret.  I only had a year with her, but I loved her with my whole heart and allowed this odd relationship to change me.  Can’t ask for much more than that, huh?  May it be the beginning of many odd relationships to come!

The wake and funeral took place last Wednesday and Thursday and I was honored to celebrate her life with the family.  I had come to know them well after all my visits to the house and was able to connect with each of them that day.  Her funeral was exactly as she planned it, short and sweet!  At age 54, it broke my heart to see her leaving behind a husband and 4 kids age 10-25.  Thankfully, they are a close-knit unit and I know they will find ways to fill in the gaps of her absence (and collectively keep her memory alive).

In closing, I leave you with one of my favorite memories of Marisa, the one that I chose to share during the Circle of Memories at the Internment.  It happened in early March, shortly after I found out I was pregnant.  I had gone over to visit her in the afternoon (she was confined to her bed at this point).  We had a lively conversation for an hour before I started to crash.  She could tell I was fading, so she encouraged me to just lay down on the other side the bed and rest my eyes for a bit.  Fast forward to 3 hours later when I awake with a jolt and realize I’ve been sleeping FOREVER.  When I asked her why she didn’t wake me, she gave and knowing smile and said, “The baby needed sleep and I was enjoying watching you rest.”  It was in that moment that I knew our friendship had morphed from acquaintances to dear friends.

~Rest in peace Marisa and enjoy all that heaven has to offer!  Know that you’ll always occupy a place in my heart.  Baby Novak has no idea how fortunate she is that you agreed to be her Guardian Angel!  XOXO, Sarah

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  1. Chris says:

    What a beautiful remembrance for your friend, Marisa. You were both so lucky to have each other. There is nothing more sacred than a friendship like this. I find more and more as I age that good friends are food for my soul. Family members are awesome and loved, but there is just something ethereal about a dear friend that can see into your soul and you into hers.

    And the promise of a guardian angel for your child . . . how amazing is that! XOXO

  2. Sarah Novak says:

    It was so unique Chris – it’s hard to describe. I am missing her dearly!

  3. christine says:

    Sarah – What a beautiful post. It brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful, blessed, friendship you had. You are both lucky to have had that precious time together.

  4. Daniela says:

    That was beautiful and so moving, Sarah!

  5. Chris says:

    By the way . . . did you take all the photographs that are in your blog piece? They are all amazing!

  6. Sarah Novak says:

    No, I must give credit for those to others. I took them from her FB page because I didn’t have any of her myself!

  7. Evelyn says:

    Beautiful Sarah, what a moving reflection of your relationship. Treasure those memories and lessons……

  8. Jen says:

    That was just amazing…I’m in tears..thank you for sharing!

  9. Yvonne says:

    Wow Sarah. This was VERY powerful and I now understand why Nia’s middle name is Marisa! What a beautiful story of Marisa and the friendship that the two of you developed. She really is an angel and what a beautiful way to honor your friend.

    Thank you for sharing. This story left me with a peace in my heart tonight!

  10. Joyce says:

    I never read this one. Just came across it by chance. What a wonderful way to honor a person you loved so much in such a short time. Naming Baby Nia Marisa Novak after her. You are a lot deeper then you will ever know. So glad you are in my family. Hardly any of us get so close like that to someone on one of our tours overseas. Keep up the good work.

  11. Sarah Novak says:

    :) She was such a magnificent woman. She taught me a lot in the short time we knew each other.

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