“Peg has left us.
She died peacefully. . . .”Cancer is the most feared disease in our society, and understandably so, as the statistics are overwhelmingly in favor of slow death rather than recovery.
Why do some people get cancer? Does it have to kill?
The last year of Peg Staley’s life was devoted to answering these questions. In October 1978, she discovered she had cancer in her right breast. Fourteen months later, she died.
Peg wrote 13 letters describing her efforts to heal herself, sending xeroxed copies to friends and relatives. She kindly gave us permission to print them.
They’re outstanding documents of one woman’s efforts to trace the origin of disease and to be “a full and primary participant” in her own healing.
Do we discount Peg’s belief in her ability to heal herself because she died? That would ignore the enormity of her task. Facing her life and her death, Peg Staley probed her psyche and every healing technique available. Her letters are an important legacy for all of us.
Peg, 56, was a therapist who lived in Saunderstown, Rhode Island. When we wrote for her biographical information last year, she responded:
I am a Gestalt therapist who was a chemistry major at Vassar, a wife and mother of five sons, a lady volunteer and founder of the first school volunteer program in Rhode Island and am waiting to see what my next transformation will be like. I live in the country, near the ocean with Andrew, my husband, and two of our sons. . . . My letters seem to describe much of my life. In addition, I have started to organize a birth center in Warwick, Rhode Island. Twenty months after our first meeting, we are hiring a midwife. The principles on which the birth center is founded have been those I’ve followed in my cancer treatment. I’ve been a therapist for the last six years. I love to walk on the beach, to raise and eat my own vegetables, to read, and most recently, to be noisy. And I’ve come to a deep appreciation of the richness of my WASP background after years of considering it to be unbearably narrow and constricting.
The following letter is from Peg’s husband Andrew and the rest of her family. We’re also reprinting excerpts of Peg’s letters.
For the five back issues which contain all the letters, send $7.00 to The Sun, 412 W. Rosemary Street, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514.
— Betsy Campbell
December 4, 1979
Peg has left us. She died peacefully at 2:00 p.m. Monday, December 3, with most of us at her bedside. The last days and hours of Peg’s life, her death, and our time together afterwards have had special meaning to those of us who were with her. Thus, this letter has been written by several of us who wanted to share some pieces of that experience with you. It comes with love from all of us.
Peg died with a little smile on her lips. After a few necessary details were taken care of, we all, nine of us, washed her, oiled her, and dressed her. Then, with Nigel Andrews from St. Peter’s Church, we had a short prayer service at her bed. I know now far more what is behind many of the rituals for the dead. These simple acts of service seemed to release a tremendous block in me and I found it easier to let Peg go, although I noticed later that it took gentle prodding from Cookie to get me to call the undertaker, a job I chose to do myself for not-so-clear reasons.
The last week was tough. Peg had been taking Percodan off and on for about three weeks. One day she twisted her hip and the fight went out of her. She still got in the bathtub herself for a time; then, with help. Jean Boyd gave us three mornings a week about then and we had a visiting nurse the other days. About mid-week her speech became difficult — lost words, partial sentences — and finally communication was possible only through little signs. We know that to the end she knew what was going on around her and we could tell what pleased or displeased her, particularly the latter. Rolling her to change bed linen or massage her back caused her pain and we dreaded that time. As late as Friday, she burst out with clear and idiomatic English on one of these occasions. Looking back, it is amazing to me how little pain relief we used, and, with one exception, I think she had enough. That one occasion was after we had switched to Morphine Sulphate by injection. She had had one shot Saturday noon, then Monday morning she seemed to be in pain and I finally, at 1:30 Monday morning, gave her another. There was a lot of stuff in my way, mostly a fear of being the one to push her over the edge. A second shot six hours later was easier.
There were many indications of her awareness and perhaps the most striking was her agitation when Peter, Anne and Hugh came into the house late Sunday. She fretted and moaned more than usual until they went into her room, then quieted down immediately. The circle was closed.
Wednesday morning we are celebrating her life at a small service, then on Saturday we will have a memorial service here in the house for any who care to come. Peg asked for this last and specified the general ground rules and music. Anyone may speak, sing, or pray and she wants played Canon in D by Pachebel, “Go Up to the Mountains” by the Weston Monks and the Alleluia Chorus.
There seems to be more of me in this letter than I like. However, I want you to know that, though tired, I am peacefully sad yet thankful that Peg’s pain is over.
Your letters to her meant a lot to her. Bless you for your support.
As a child I would lie alone in my room fantasizing what would happen when my parents died. In my fantasies Peg was usually the first to die or they both died together in some sort of disaster. These images were always accompanied by my anguished crying which would suddenly stop as I imagined myself pulling the family together and taking care of my younger brothers.
The tears have come and return frequently. However, I am not alone nor do I have to save my family. We have become close in these days, and I express our gratitude to all of you for your love and support. So many have helped.
On Friday we went out and bought quantities of food to supply us through the weekend as we anticipated an involved time and the gathering of the family. We have barely touched it as all of you have taken such good care of us, sending casseroles, loaves of bread, and fruit. You are all blessed friends. Dad joked at one point that he did not know that manna was so heavy. Thank you.
I arrived from Mexico City early Friday morning. Peg was lying in her bed, breathing hard and very hot. I wanted desperately to save her, yet there was nothing to do. I have never felt so impotent in my life. She was beyond my power and I could only pray for her and hope for a miracle.
It was hard accepting that she would die, yet remembering her mantra, “Thy Will Be Done”, I felt sure she was well prepared. Her life here was in good order which is so typical of Peg.
Peg often talked about the need for support in her life and in her last letter she wrote of the need for a midwife for the process she was in. On Friday I was sitting with her wishing that I knew some ceremony to help Peg in her death. I wanted her to remember to follow the light, the light she had seen in her work with Ben Bentov and which had given her so much joy. An hour later, Olivia Hobitzelle showed up at the house for an appointment that she had made with Peg before Peg became very sick. It was a tremendous gift. In her meditation, we worked with Peg to focus on and to merge with the light. As we worked, we became peaceful and Peg’s breathing evened out. Dad and I repeated this meditation often, and we were doing it as she died.
On Saturday, Hugh and Lorli, Peg’s brother and sister-in-law, arrived. They are beautiful people whose faith in Christ shines through them. We prayed for Peg and for ourselves that God would ease our grief.
The process with Peg has been sad, and very beautiful, full of transcendence. I pray she has found the support in God that she has sought. My cousin, Tad Staley, sent us a quote which says it most beautifully:
“I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch her until at length she is only a ribbon white cloud where the sea and the sky mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, ‘There! She’s gone!’ Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says, ‘There! She’s gone!’, there are other voices ready to take up the glad shout, ‘There! She comes!’ ”
Let Peg’s death be a reminder of Christ’s victory over death. May peace be with you all.
On Monday night, we four, David, Tim, Dito, and Cookie, sat up together in the living room for a long time. Dito and David read aloud; earlier, we had rubbed backs and necks to allay the tension and exhaustion of the day. As we finished the story, Dito fell asleep. Tim and David and I were restless and wanted to walk outside.
We emerged from the studio and the night took our breath away. It was a full moon — Dito and I had somehow known that Peg’s crossing would come with the full moon. We had not guessed what it would mean to us, the feeling of that night. There was an unaccustomed brilliance and clarity to the sky. Stars and moon bathed the trees and path and houses with silvery radiance, like soft white moss. Our hearts leaped up, as if to hug the moon. The crispness in the air filled us with our own aliveness, not with the feeling of death but of ultimate aliveness. We reached into the night and it touched us back, surrounded us with light. The words we had spoken to Peg inside were given back to us in that moment: breath and light become one.
We knew in that beautiful night that Peg was not only accepted but welcomed with the finest celebration the heavens could give. It seemed to us that it was her light energy, clear radiant light, which made the night so brilliant. We walked and breathed and laughed and hugged together and knew without saying that everything was perfect.
David and Cookie
When I think of Peg or Mom, I feel peace and gratefulness. I remember Christmas years ago. . . . All the family around the tree opening presents, laughter, love and family; opening a present from Mrs. Santa that would be something wonderful — a soccer ball or a tricycle with a “Mom made” clown on it. Mom would look over at me with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her lips and say, “What did you get?” Both of us knew that she knew. My heart would overflow with love and thanks. That is what I feel now.
The strength and courage, her caring and love will always remain with me as a reminder of what all of us can be. To live with the openness with which Mom lived seems a worthy goal. She was and is my Mother and I love her and thank her for the gifts she gave and the lessons we learned. Lastly, I want to thank you for your love and support of Peg and us, her family. You have been a comfort for which we are grateful. May our hearts be one . . .
I would like to share a verse from the Bible which was set to music. It was a favorite of Peg’s, the one she always sang in tune:
“He gave me beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garments of praise for the spirit of heaviness. I am a tree of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, and Jesus is glorified.”
Our love to all of you,
Andrew, Dito, Hugh, Tim, Peter and Anne, David, Cookie, Paul and Nancy
P.S. The memorial service was beautiful (an inadequate word in this instance). Two hundred friends crowded into the house to share their love for Peg with us and many spoke of what she had meant to them. Elizabeth Trapp came down from Vermont to sing her songs of praise of the Lord. What a lovely woman.
Shirley Sheldon, Norma Smayda, Rose Marie Lindgren, and Lynn Knauss outdid themselves with food and decorations. We have little knowledge of who did all the baking, but our appreciation is great. Even the trashman added his share by arriving right in the middle of the service, bringing the earthy clanking of reality.
As a diamond, Peg had many facets and this service was a montage of these on a background of love.
© Andrew Staley