Tag Archives: loss

Remembering Ellen, Three Years Later



I’m now older by a year than my older sister will ever be.

It’s a reality I’d never considered much. “I’m fourth of eight, two older brothers, one older sister, three younger brothers, and one younger sister—all in twelve years.” That was always my standard refrain when asked about my siblings. I’d oftentimes add in a p.s., which invariably elicited a laugh. “I’m the quintessential bitter middle child.”

Here we are, three years to the day when Ellen Marguerite O’Hara took her last breath—and yet, it oftentimes still does not seem real.

I was chatting with my daughter the other day, and the subject of Ellen came up. Gabriella and Ellen had a close bond; Gabriella really trusted and respected her—and the plan for the future was most definitely not this one.

The plan was growing older—all of us—together. Attending future weddings of our many 20-something nieces and nephews. Meeting their future progeny. Making plans to reconnect with all the “West Coast O’Haras.”

Oh, and of course, spending precious time with the Washington state branch of the O’Hara family tree—the Montano men, we three sisters & the two other cousins, Gabriella and Lillie (who now goes by “Levi”).

In time, when the cousins were older, all of us drinking red, red wine in Ellen’s candlelit living room on Spokane’s South Hill on a relaxing Saturday night, savoring whatever was on the menu for the evening. Soup made from a beef stock that had simmered all afternoon, or spaghetti in a sauce that made your senses sing. Whatever Ellen made, it was always sensational. “I just followed the recipe,” she’d invariably say.

One of her last texts to me, before things went from bad to worse and kept on going, was on Valentine’s Day 2014. “Wicked is coming here in May. We should all go.”

It wasn’t meant to be. A different kind of wicked had taken hold; the cancer would soon take its toll.

Three years ago today, she died. Later this evening, Gabriella and I will raise our respective glasses of red wine and send a toast out into the universe in honor of Ellen Marguerite O’Hara. (Will you join us?)

red wine pouring


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I’m easing in this rainy Saturday morning. Sifting through bills, sipping on an underwhelming cup of coffee and adding tasks to my online to-do list. (Latest entry: ”Buy quality coffee beans at Cafe Lladro in Bothell.”)

My phone buzzes with a new post alert. I glance down and read it. It’s one of the those Facebook messages, alerting me of a friend’s birthday.

“Today is Ellen O’Hara’s birthday.  Reply to post a wish on her Timeline of reply with 1 to post “Happy Birthday!”.

I sit, motionless, listening to the pouring rain. Memories of that last horrific day in March of 2014 return.

It was late afternoon on the 10th floor of Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital–the cancer floor. A harpist from the hospice had just finished up playing at the foot of my older sister’s bed. Two former colleagues of hers were knocking on the door, having ignored the “no visitors” directive.

I let them in. Ellen awoke. They had no idea how bad off she was, and spent a few minutes trying to banter. “Ellen, are you gonna come to St. Patrick’s Parade this weekend?” She shook her head slowly, back and forth. It was a “no.”

They continued on with their attempted chit-chat, about what I can’t really recall. After a several  more awkward minutes, I told them that she was exhausted and they should probably go.

The second guy had one more question: “Ellen, any words for everyone at the office?”

Ellen stared intently at them both for several beats. She was heavily medicated; pain meds administered every 20 minutes, with one simple click. On this, what would be her last day of life, even when she was asleep, my younger sister and I made sure of it (especially after the night prior, when Ellen’s pain meds ran out for an unthinkable 20 minutes).

Yet now, she was all all there. She slowly, weakly lifted up her arm and waved her hand back and forth, once. Just once. I could hear what she was saying: “Buh bye!” 

The two former colleagues departed. Ellen died hours later.

I return to my tasks at hand. Two years ago, I would have added “Call Ellen and wish her a happy birthday.” Today, I have only old photographs to study, vinyl records to play, candles to light, beer to drink, and memories to mine. (Such is life…and death.)

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The day those five trusty words finally failed me

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Five words have managed to get me through most of my life: “It could always be worse.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve said that phrase, and it always managed to make me feel empowered and strong. Until the day it no longer applied.

It was that horrific week in March of 2014, when my older sister’s scheduled hysterectomy never happened. Those nightmarish five days when the truth was finally revealed, and we discovered that her stage 4 uterine cancer had spread unabated.

I’d had a sinking feeling when I first heard about the hysterectomy a month prior. My younger sister, Regan, the eternal optimist, did not appreciate my negative attitude. I’d just witnessed the rapid decline of several family members of a close friend from ovarian cancer. I couldn’t shake my feelings of fear and dread.

Ellen suffered terribly and died unexpectedly on March 15 just after midnight.  On that last day of her life, Regan and I had left the hospital around 11 p.m., after our eldest brother Tom arrived from California with more family on the way.

Ellen had been asleep, but still moaning intermittently despite powerful IV pain meds she was receiving. We debriefed him–most importantly to ensure that her pain meds absolutely, positively did not run out.

The prior evening, her nurse had been busy with other patients–and Ellen went 25 minutes without any painkillers.

It’s truly unfathomable, the suffering she endured. Even with the potent cocktail of opiates and who knows what else she was getting every 20 minutes on demand, she still frequently said her pain was “off the charts.”

Tom was standing by Ellen’s bed as we left the room. We arrived back at Ellen’s house on Spokane’s South Hill around 11:30 p.m.. opened a bottle of wine, collapsed into her couch and stared at each other, silently.  

The blur of the past week? None of it seemed real, even now. We sipped our wine and sat quietly. Then, Regan reached for her phone, checking for text messages.. We’d asked our brother to send an update after we left.

“We haven’t heard from Tom.” She dialed his number, and winced as he delivered the news. “I think Ellen just died.”

Later that morning, around dawn, I awoke, unrested and bleary-eyed. The dream I’d been having faded to the background; the nightmare was all too real.  

Those trusty five words?  This time, they most definitely would not apply.

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“Don’t shake your head. Nod.”



It’s only been a week and a half since the sudden death of my sister, Ellen. 

Exactly two weeks ago, I was standing by her hospital bed. I had arrived the prior evening, racing across the I-90 from Seattle to Spokane after hearing the awful news. Acute renal failure. Stage 3 uterine cancer. Metastacized.

She’d been scheduled for a hysterectomy. She’d stayed home that prior week, private, proud, independent and always so strong, awaiting the arrival of our younger sister, Regan on Sunday, March 9. She was in terrible pain that continued to intensify as the week progressed, but apparently thought it was to be expected.

I’d texted her midway through the trip. “I will be arriving in a few hours. Can I visit?” No word until I neared the exit for downtown Spokane. My phone pinged. “Not tonight.”

The next morning, my younger sister and I headed to Sacred Heart Hospital. Ellen’s room was empty. We found her next-door, in the dialysis room.

I slowly approached her bed, unaware that I shaking my head at the sight of her. IV drips of various medications were circulating through her veins. She breathed through the mask of her CPAP machine.Her right hand was tightly clutching the device that administered potent pain meds on demand, every 20 minutes. . 

Her eyes revealed the unimaginble agony she’d endured. I think that was what I was shaking my head at most as I approached her. She stared intently at me, my always-in-control, take-charge sister. She was reading my face, the way she’d always done for the past 54 years. After a few moments, she spoke, softly: “Don’t shake your head. Nod.” It was quintessential Ellen humor. I obeyed her directive, per usual.

Regan then handed her the will. Ellen had asked her to bring it with us to the hospital. She held it up closely to her face and began scanning it carefully. I watched, silently.

Regan left to get an update from the doctors and nurses. Ellen stopped reading, and looked over at me anxiously. “Do you think ReRe can handle this?” (Ellen had chosen Regan way back in 2007 as the guardian for her teenaged daughter.) “Should I switch it to you?”

I assured her that she’d made the right choice; that our little sister was stronger than we knew. She had her amazing husband, and me—and our big family.

It was now her turn to nod. She returned her gaze to the will in her hands, and continued reading.





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Lefty, can ya’ pick me some lemons?


It’s Thanksgiving  Day, circa 1973 —a little after noon.

I’m 14 years old. Our home in Southern California’ s burgeoning San Fernando Valley is bustling with action.

By now, my mother has finished preparing the stuffing. The small saucepan with the repulsive turkey neck, liver and giblets and globs of fat is simmering on the stove.

The 20-plus pound “bird” has been defrosted, slathered with mayonnaise and is safely ensconced in the black and mottled gray roaster.

It’s a happy day. I and my seven siblings are scattered throughout our sprawling, ramshackle rambler.  Football games are on. Strains of “Rosalita” by Bruce can be heard in the distance. Some of my brothers are out back shooting hoops. Everyone is getting ready to get their gobble on.

Our dad, the “Big O,” is in great spirits. He’d been a bartender in NYC way back in the 1940s, and knows his stuff.  And now he is prepping for the revelry ahead.

Whiskey sours are on the T-Day happy hour agenda, and fresh lemon juice is a key ingredient. Luckily, we have three prodigious trees that collectively produce more lemons than we can ever consume.

“Lefty, can ya’ pick me some lemons?”

“Lefty “ is my dad’s nickname for me. I am the only south-pawed inhabitant of 4571 Encino Avenue, and he’s called me that for as long as I can remember.

I spring into action, hurry out back and gather a dozen or so. They feel warm in my hands from the afternoon sun.

I scurry inside with the prized citrus sensations in tow. “Here ya’ go, Dad!”  I say, proudly.

He beams back, pleased with my work. I am at this moment supremely happy.

The “Big O” then proceeds to prepare the first batch of whiskey sours. I watch, transfixed. The blender turns on, the concoction whirls loudly away, and then silence. I watch as he lifts the lid, dips a spoon in and tastes. After a few more sprinkle of sugar and squeezes of lemon, he’s satisfied.

He pours the first serving into a tumbler, and takes a sip and smiles.

“Dad, can I try it? I ask. “It looks so good!”

He takes a puff off his Raleigh and ponders my request. “Lefty, it’s  pretty strong.”

“I’ll just have a little bit, Dad!” I promise.

He pours a glassful and hands it over. I take a small sip — and my tasebuds do a happy dance. It’s delicious;  like fresh lemonade with lots of sugar and ice and but something more.  I take another sip. “Careful, Lefty!” my day says. I laugh and watch as he putters around the kitchen and keeps an eye on the score of the football game. After a bit, I start to feel all warm and bit fuzzy.

“Uhhh, Dad. I feel a little weird. I’m gonna go lie down for a little while.” I retreat to my room,  head for my bed and it’s lights out.

I  awake around 8 p.m. , groggy and confused. I wander out to the kitchen. A picked-over turkey carcass sits forlornly on the kitchen counter, adjacent to a pan of congealed turkey gravy. I lift the lid on a nearby pan, and stare at the lump of cold mashed potatoes.

I grab a plate, assemble my meal — and fill my glass with water, and then fill it again. I feel a bit chagrined, but quickly recover. There’s my plate to attend to, and I even spy a few surviving pieces of pumpkin pie!

It’s Thanksgiving Day 2013 — an unconventional year for me. No gathering of the three sisters and family. No traditional turkey dinner.

The out-to-dinner plans I had for today fell through. My college girl is spending time with her new boyfriend’s family, meeting them all for the first time.

Parents die. Families scatter. Children leave home. Traditions change. And life goes on.

Later today, “Lefty” will be picking some lemons, counting her blessings and savoring so very many memories of Thanksgivings gone by.

Cheer to you, “Nana” and “Big O”!


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