Sustaining our living and dying in Homer: a Thanksgiving reflection

A few weeks ago, I found myself trapped for 12 days in a hospital in Seattle, receiving “top-notch care” for an emergency complication of late-stage breast cancer, longing only to get home. The doctors in Seattle were nervous to release me to “the middle of nowhere.” Everything in me desired Homer, despite what I knew of November with its slick roads and snow-rain cycle. Despite our relatively small hospital. Despite the lack of, technically, a “medical hospice” or official palliative care program. Despite my too-skinny body and chemo-numbed fingertips and thin hair, not the sturdiest body for such climate. An air pocket in my lung prevented me from flying, so my sister and her husband hatched an alternate plan to get me home. 

That’s how my husband, Craig, and I found ourselves, along with my sister and her husband, on the ferry Malaspina, the same vessel that carried Craig to Alaska for the first time in the early 1970s, and me, in 1986. Every hour brought us further north. Every port of call was followed by a summons from the purser, who handed me some care package from writers, former students, teaching colleagues, bookstore owners. In Haines we rented a car and three days later, Craig and I pulled into the Baycrest look-out to take a picture, where so many beauty-dazed humans stagger out of their cars to be changed forever by the view.

I confess I’m not one of those who decided, instantly smitten, that I’d arrived home when I first laid eyes on Kachemak Bay. At 20-something, I’d already given my heart to Prince William Sound, where I worked at a hatchery. And then, a second home came to be Fairbanks, where I lived for 12 winters. No, it wasn’t the view that drew me to Homer eventually, but community, and the way people lived in this place.

Winters as a grad student, to get away from Fairbanks’50-below cold, I’d drive down to Homer to visit the Freeman and Matkin families —  Craig, his then-wife Olga and their kids. These two families lived near the Kilcher homestead, 12 miles east of town. With them, I walked or rode horses to the water’s edge through Yule’s frozen hay meadows. The pewter and smoke-blue skies with their low light, the frozen ruts under my feet, the still-upright brown pushki stalks, the log cabins threading woodsmoke into the sky on the homestead, the hay sheds and tractors and of course the huge sky, the enormous view, wore their way into my eyes, and up through the soles of my boots. They filled me with longing to live here.

I began living in Homer after I finished grad school, in 1999, and with the way cancer operates, I probably began dying in Homer then, too. I left an extremely close community in Fairbanks behind, and like many who relocate to a small town as adults, that first year was lonesome. The first time I flew out of Homer to visit family, I stared out the window of the Twin Otter as it took off and thought, literally, “You’re a hard, hard place.” 

How did I get from that moment to its opposite, 12 years later, when, descending toward the airstrip’s lights in darkness on a Twin Otter, my heart felt like it was zeroing in toward a bull’s eye, its deepest longing? That was 2011, and for eight months I’d again been trapped in the realm of hospitals in Boston, where I was treated for breast cancer the first time. 

What made Homer home was 12 years of stitching myself into this place, bodily out in the natural world, and emotionally in communities of caring. It became in that time a place that could sustain my living, and now sustains my dying.

Thanksgiving is a time we traditionally recognize such aspects of our communities of care. It is a time we give thanks, and give of ourselves for others. I wanted to express gratitude for some of the ways Homer has sustained my life, even as I approach dying. We don’t usually think of inviting death to our Thanksgiving table, but when you think about it, it’s intrinsically there, as it is all around us in nature. After all, our tables are set with foods, some of them harvested from this piece of earth — a give and take of life and death entwined to create mutual sustainability.

Homer is uniquely home to each of us. I want to acknowledge and thank some particular communities of caring that sustain me within the larger entity that is Homer, that is the southern Kenai Peninsula, that is the Alaska coast. 

 

First, our college.Until a few years ago, the Kachemak Bay campus was another home for me. I came to Homer without a winter job, fresh out of grad school, carrying my letters of recommendation and resume into Carol Swartz’s cramped office, hoping there was a need for another creative writing or English teacher, and luckily, at the time, there was. Each semester, though, was a nail-biter of waiting to see if my classes would fill. All over town I hung posters that Therese, who worked at the college then, designed. I called all my friends, put out PSAs on KBBI, trying to drum up students. I even convinced Craig to sign up for poetry classes a couple times to boost enrollment. At least some of my classes managed to go each semester, sometimes with only 6-8 students, but each student needed that particular class, and it was gratifying to be able to fulfill that need, to help get them where they wanted to go, to see them grow. Every day, I got to shoot the breeze with smart, funny, devoted colleagues, from counselors who helped me learn to work with students with disabilities, to fellow profs 

like Beth Graber who shared years of experience, to Jim who helped me set up my room, close down the building at night, and keep track of my sometimes errant dog, to Therese who lent a sympathetic ear, and forgave me when I almost set the copy machine on fire. 

Now, I see former students in all manner of jobs around town, and some even help care for me up at the hospital. I get to hold the books of former students in my hands after they’ve signed them. Thank you, Homer, for the most gratifying work I could imagine, for being a college town, a community that supports lifelong learning.

 

Our art. That first lonely Homer winter, I began volunteering at Bunnell Arts Center, spending many quiet afternoons manning the cash register, answering questions, and when the gallery was empty, sitting on the window bench and writing, or wandering around staring at the art, studying the fat binder of artist profiles. I met many artists of our town, people who’d become friends for life. I’d write my way into their works on exhibit, realizing the commonalities of our visual and poetic language. I invited them into my writing classrooms. I saw performances that expanded my vision of what art could be and do, and introduced my stepkids to such works. I even got 12 year-old Lars intrigued with opera after one memorable Bunnell night. 

This creative community nurtured my own growth as a writer, and I celebrated the publication of each of my books in the gallery, surrounded by paintings and sculpture and friends. Thank you, Asia Freeman and my Bunnell family. Thank you, Homer, for being a community that supports the arts, that supports my artistic life to this day.

 

 

Our soil, our sea, our food, our farmers and fishers. When we first turned over the earth behind our house to build a garden, I was astounded at the black richness of the soil. Every summer, even though Craig and I spend half our time on our research boat, that soil grows us a garden, enough potatoes, carrots, kale, herbs, and cabbage to last the whole winter, and plenty to share. Anytime someone in our neighborhood catches fish, the phone rings. My stepdaughter drops off eggs from her chickens when she visits. What we can’t grow, aren’t gifted, don’t scoop up in nets from China Poot, we find at the farmer’s market. A superwoman named Terry Jones delivers goat milk, cheese and yogurt to our door. 

These couple weeks since I enrolled in hospice, a brigade of friends has dropped off jars of homemade soup a few times a week, and the list of ingredients always includes something grown here. All our bread comes from Two Sisters. 

After a certain draining procedure at the hospital, I’m usually ravenously hungry, and Fat Olives serves me up a Cattleman Sandwich.  Every time I drive home from town, I pass the Homer Community Food Pantry, and often there is a sign out in front of the church for a free community meal. Thank you, Homer, the earth, the sea and the people, for feeding us, for nurturing us in sickness and health.

 

Our hospital, our health practitioners, our hospice.  When I came to Homer, I took my health for granted. I didn’t have a doctor. I didn’t have health insurance. I was a runner, skier, biker, hiker, yogi, organic foodie. I was a “picture of health” only because no picture could show those first breast cells mutating into cancer. Today, a visiting nurse comes by once a week to check up on me. Once a month or so I have to head to the hospital for some drainage procedure to palliate my cancer symptoms, and the most compassionate team in the world makes me feel safe and nurtured. My doctor texts me any time of the day or night to check in. From hospice and home health, I’m assured, I’ll get everything I need to die at home, including support for my family. When I was still undergoing chemo, my posse and I just had to drive up to the hospital to find Meredith and Jo-Ann, the infusion nurses. Because of Jo-Ann’s efforts, we have our own infusion center, and cancer patients need not travel far away to get treatment. And you’d have to travel far to get such kindness. 

Thank you, Homer, for caring for us at all stages of our lives, in myriad ways, from acupuncture to massage therapy to naturopathy to surgery to hands-on-healing to yoga, from birth to death.

 

• • • • •

This year, my sister and her family will fly up to join my wacky extended Homer family to give thanks in our home. My stepkids, their moms, in-laws, our grandbabies will share a turkey Eve and Eivin raised, potatoes from our garden, cole slaw from Olga’s, pie from Prince William Sound blueberries, all the things that sustain a life from beginning to end. We’ll be encircled by a chain of wild, snowy mountains, and wild, tide-swept waters, and love. There is such richness here. If we continue to care for it, it will continue to sustain us all through a good life and a good death. 

This community, this piece of earth, this bay and inlet, this ice and sky. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part, this place I call home and its people: Thank you.   

Eva Saulitis is a writer, teacher and biologist. Her recent works include “Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas” and “Prayer in Wind.”

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