Tag Archives: sisters

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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Two weeks ago—right at this moment, Ellen was enduring the last few hours of her life. The massive doses of pain meds, delivered intravenously, were doing their best to allay some of her pain. She also had a handheld device that allowed her to administer another dose every 20 minutes.

Two weeks ago right now, she had been recently moved to the cancer floor at Sacred Heart hospital in Spokane. During the night prior, her pain meds had run out for 20 minutes, and by the time the nurse discovered it, she had suffered beyond belief. It had changed everything.

The plan had been for Ellen to get a new port for the dialysis put in on Friday morning, and once the doctors saw some progress with it, she’d undergo chemotherapy. The plan was for her to fight and rally—and have “the big talk” with her teenaged daughter on Sunday when Lil returned from a weekend school debate team trip. After the pain med “mishap,” we had a new plan. Ellen couldn’t bear the pain for another moment. Palliative care was the new plan.

As the sun began its descent in the horizon, a harpist came to play in her room. (The morning prior, upon hearing about the availability of this service, Ellen silently scoffed. I could see her rejecting the idea, even though she didn’t speak).  But now, this next afternoon, I invited the harpist in. She had said that the music could help alleviate pain, and that was all I needed to hear.

The harpist was an older woman with deeply empathetic eyes. She explained that she would time the music to Ellen’s breaths, settled into a chair and began.

The music was exquisite. At times, Ellen would open her eyes, stare at the woman for several seconds, push her pain pump and drift off. (Later, I’d ask her if she liked the music. “Yeahhhhh,” she replied. “Were you surprised to see the harpist in your room?” I asked. She looked surprised. She had not remembered looking intently at her, just an hour prior.)

Ellen had not wanted any visitors, period—just her two sisters. But during those last few hours, as word spread among her colleagues and friends, a few decided to come and try to see her.  At first, I tried to send them away. But my phone rang, and It needed to run down critical paperwork to Regan. I decided to let them in.

When I returned 10 minutes later, Ellen had awoken and conversed briefly with the two former colleagues. They—like everyone—had no idea that Ellen was dying.

They asked if she was going to the city of Spokane’s St. Patrick’s Day parade the next day. The answer was a most definite “no.” I could see she was fading again.

One of her friends then asked if she had anything she wanted him to say to her officemates. She delivered her answer, sharp and sarcastic even until the end. She waved her hand slowly, back and forth a few times—“bye bye.”

Ellen drifted off again, but was still in pain—even with all the massive doses of medicine.pain  A nurse came in to check on things. I repeated the story about how her pain meds had run out earlier that morning, and stated that it simply couldn’t and wouldn’t happen again, Regan and I were going to be monitoring it and the minute a machine beeped, we’d be all over them.

I also asked about pushing her pain med pump for her every 20 minutes. Ellen would still moan in pain even when she appeared to be asleep. I asked: “What do you think?” She hesitated, and said she needed to check with the supervising nurse.

It was at that moment that I made a decision that I know was absolutely right. “You know what?” I said. “I don’t care what you say. I am pushing it every 20 minutes. I know Ellen would want that.”

Regan returned to the room shortly thereafter, and the night unfolded. We’d alerted our siblings, and several were on the way.

Eldest brother Tom arrived around 10:00 p.m. Regan and I debriefed him and passed the reins on for the night. She and I left at 11:15 p.m. to go to Ellen’s house to get some sleep.

We arrived home, and collapsed onto the couch with much-needed glasses of wine. After a bit, we grew concerned. No updates from Tom.

Regan texted him, and then called. It was 12:01 a.m. Tom answered immediately: “I think she’s gone. She’s not breathing.”

W.W.E.D. — “What would Ellen do?”

She’d hang on until her two younger sisters had reinforcements.

She’d wait until our eldest brother was there by her side.

She’d go out her way, on her terms.

(And she did.)

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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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