I have written before about the Oregon Country Fair, but I haven’t written much about the PEOPLE. The community of gentle, wonderful people that make the thing possible. It’s a large group of people I feel deeply connected to, although I’ve only had the pleasure of their company a scant 5 years (and really, 3 of those were by proxy.)
I suppose that isn’t a long time, but something wonderful happens when you spend 170 consecutive hours with folks, shouldering the heavy burden that the recyclables are — sliding through the mud, directing a fleet of ancient trucks, repairing those trucks, watching the trucks slide into the mud, lifting things, laying hands on every single piece of glass, plastic and aluminum — both returnable and not — that is thrown into barrels (and NOT thrown into barrels, thank you very much.) We call the people who work at OCF “family”, because it’s completely how it feels. Sleep deprivation, filth, discomfort, giving comfort, laughs, food, tears, etc — it all leads to an incredible bond.
We call our elders…”elders”, because it is respectful and because it is a nod to cultures who treat age with a respect that is sometimes lost in the youth-obsessed mainstream. One of our elders began to rapidly lose his battle with cancer recently. We had been kept abreast of events to keep in our thoughts –treatments, chemotherapy, analysis, waiting, accepting.
When further treatments were proposed he opted not to deny the inevitable but rather to embrace it. He did so in a way I have never seen anyone do, but in a way that I want to be a model for my own life, should such be my lot.
Through the listserv and Facebook, it was announced that Mr. Painter would be having a farewell send-off. A celebration of life.
The local core members — along with long-suffering family members — mobilized as only they know how. People were called. Roles were assigned. camping-canopies were dug out of garages, outdoor heaters were found, as were an army of mix-match plastic chairs — as the house could only accommodate so many. And the prospective visiting list was over 200 strong. Casseroles were made. A sign up sheet was made, so each person who wanted one could have their moment.
I have often had examples of how to live, but this was the first I’d really had of how to die. It was the most simple thing, yet the most profound thing. Pictures began to pop up on the Facebook group, and the look in the man’s eyes is something I find difficult to describe, for it is something I haven’t seen before. The earnest, joyful face of a man who is having it his own way, fading peacefully at home, surrounded by a sea of loved ones. Young and old, time-worn and new, everyone who could make it did.
From his recliner in the center of the room, bolstered by pillows and warmed by a crocheted blanket someone had made, again and again his pure, open face of surprise, delight, at each new familiar face (and perhaps even some less familiar ones, still offering joy, still offering gratitude for having known him, spoken with him). Here a person kneeling in front of him, leaning in. There a person sitting on a stool laughing with him. There a person showing him a collage they put together, or a painting they painted in his honor. Each holding his hand — save the crew member who skyped in from Japan.
We are not as close to him as many are, and we opted to let those who needed it have their time. But I have been following it all on Facebook because it is beautiful, and makes me swell with gratitude that I know such decent, wonderful people.
Visiting hours closed over the weekend, but for a week after the goodbye party updates ripples of warmth and beauty continued to surge through my feed. Pictures from when he was young. Pictures of people visiting with him. Pictures of flowers. Messages from crew members. More casseroles. A recipe for a depression-era raison cake that was a favorite of his. Updates about the man himself, so many including the words, “he is lucid, happy, and pain-free.” One update described how he woke to see the sunrise , and expressed his wish to be reborn as a night-blooming cactus.
He breathed his last Feb 2 — almost two years after he shared his diagnosis with us. At that time he said that, untreated, the doctors gave him four months. He opted for treatment so he could go on his own terms.
What a note to leave on. We should all be so lucky to have the grace to recognize the end when we see it, and to greet it surrounding by flowers, love, and smiling faces.