A Tiny, Fierce Light That Lives On

Lisa hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, probably the mid-1980s.

Last month my sister Lisa died after “fighting” Stage 4 bone cancer for nearly three years. In the end, cancer won, and we, the people who love her, lost. However, Lisa’s spirit was amazingly strong and would not allow her body to go down without a ferocious, optimistic fight.

When we were young, people thought we were twins since we were born only 15 months apart. We were not Irish twins which are born less than a year apart, but we missed that designation by only 3 months. We were very close when we were growing up–and were best friends in high school.

At Lisa’s funeral, our cousin Sonny said he remembered when Lisa and I used to sing “Do-Rei-Mi” from movie version of The Sound of Music. Daddy had bought us the soundtrack record, and we knew all the words to the songs. Well, apparently we did not know all the words, all the time, Sonny said one of us would elbow the other when the offending party missed a phrase. Being the older sister, it was probably me who did the elbowing. Guilty as charged. We had always been together, and even after we grew up, married, and had our own lives, we were close in ways that only sisters can be. We did not always agree on everything; no, not at all. But we had the shared values that our parents taught us–people are more important than things. And family was, well, like breathing, and the loss of close family members was unthinkable . . . beyond words.

Each month, each week, each day for the past two-and-half-or-so years, I dreaded the phone call that would make my fear of losing Lisa a reality. Often I got in the shower thinking, “Is this the day Kurt will come in and tell me my sister is gone?” When the day came I was not in the shower and my sister was still alive. Kurt and I were in the car when I got the call from Lisa’s husband Rocky that she was failing, and we should come right away. I had prepared myself, but I had not prepared myself. I howled liked a lost thing. Which I was.

Early that Friday morning, June 17, 2022, Rocky had taken Lisa to the emergency room, and the doctors said they could keep her alive for perhaps a few more weeks if she stayed in the hospital where they could give her intravenous antibiotics for a life-threatening infection she had picked up. If she went home, they predicted she would die in a few days. Lisa insisted with all the force left in her tiny body, that she wanted to go home, so Rocky took her home, and the family and hospice care was called in.

Mama and Lisa at the old retail center at Stanley’s Greenhouse, Christmas season 1999.

I felt so lucky that I got to speak to her before she died. We did not say goodbye, which was undoubtedly for the best. She was lying on the couch in her living room, obviously agitated, and told me how guilty she felt that she had not been able to help me take Mama to doctor’s appointments after our mother broke her wrist a few weeks ago.

“Oh, my dear girl, no, you have done so many things for Mama. You have done so much for everyone, sweet girl! And we love you so much!” I cried, as my tears dropped steadily on my dress.

She seemed not to hear my words at all as she worried aloud whether her husband Rocky had talked to the accountant to make sure Mama was taken care of while she was off work with her wrist.

“Oh, yes, Rocky has already done that,” I said.

“Rocky needs to talk to John about making sure Mama gets what she needs,” she said relentlessly to the ceiling.

“Honey, I have talked to him. It’s all taken care of,” Rocky assured her.

Lisa continued talking about Mama as the skies cracked open, and we could hear torrential rain falling outside the house. Lisa wanted to see the rain, so her daughter Abby helped her up. Abby–the beloved baby girl who Lisa gave birth to after so many years of trying to get pregnant–supported Lisa as she walked slowly. As Lisa stepped onto the front porch, a deafening crack of thunder boomed and lightning struck across the street near the river. It seemed that the natural world was enraged by this unnatural diminishing of Lisa’s light.

Lisa with her husband Rocky, around 2000.

We–Lisa, Rocky, Mama, Abby and her husband Holden, Kurt, and I–gathered on the porch watching the tremendous rain that comes so seldom to Tennessee in mid June. Between thunder and lightning, I wondered at how the Earth had decided to signify Lisa’s upcoming death with tumultuous fury, aghast that it had come to this.

Despite her frail condition, my sister stood, barefooted and bareheaded, as she had lost most of her hair during the final, futile few months of treatment. She looked like an alert, little bird, still singing her song.

We watched the rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. “Let’s sit down,” Abby suggested. The lightning flashed and the thunder answered, and Lisa talked of hydrangeas and how they loved the rain. And she certainly would know since she had been a plant specialist and co-manager of the family business, Stanley’s Greenhouse. She inspired countless people to grow hydrangeas and pansies/violas/panolas (the latter a hybrid cross between the two which Lisa loved) and Greggii salvia (her favorite) and orchids and dogwood trees and fragrant Edgeworthia (paper bush tree) which she had planted near the road in her front yard. Lisa’s garden.

She talked incessantly of hydrangeas and then repeatedly said the word cultivars. Then she spoke, but none of the words were intelligible. We looked past each other, her bewildered family, talking about everything and nothing–trying to think how to answer her. Someone suggested we go inside, and Abby steered Lisa in the front door of her home for the last time. Lisa laid on the couch and seemed to enter a fitful coma.

Lisa with hydrangeas grown at Stanley’s Greenhouse, April 2019.

Lisa’s first-born Zach lives in Portland, Oregon, so his partner Paige called to say she was finalizing his flights to arrive in Knoxville as soon as possible. The first available flight called for him to fly through the night to Nashville and then drive a rental car to arrive home Saturday. Zach made it to his parents’ home around midday. And his mother was, thankfully, still alive.

At Rocky and Lisa’s home, we hosted friends and neighbors and pastors and hospice nurses. One of the nurses said it was likely that Lisa was in a twilight sleep, yet she fervently believed Lisa could hear us. Family and friends talked to her and touched her lovingly. Occasionally she squeezed a finger, or turned her head to a familiar voice. But she was not at peace. Saturday was difficult for Lisa, but after her medication was adjusted in the early evening, she rested more comfortably.

Lisa died in the wee hours of the morning on Father’s Day Sunday, June 19, 2022. Our dear father died five and a half years ago, but it seemed fitting that his second daughter should die on his special day. Daddy was so proud of his girls, and so sensitive, that I feel certain it is best that he did not live to see Lisa’s passing. His mother, Darcus Montgomery Allen, died when she was 31 years old, just 4 months after she gave birth to Daddy. He never got over the pain of growing up without a mother. When his father died at the age of 84, Daddy said it took him three months to grieve. He woke up one day and found he could finally cry. Grief has its own timetable.

Carroll County, Virginia, where our grandmother Darcus Nickaline Montgomery grew up on her family’s farm.
Photo: Kurt K. Weiss.

Mama has been remarkable in her ability to go on. She came from a close family who were entirely devoted to each other. Hardworking, full of faith and strength, Mama made up the difference when Daddy was between jobs when we growing up. With her wrist healed, she is now back to working, at the age of 86, at Stanley’s Greenhouse–the nursery that Rocky’s parents started in 1955–where she has worked for nearly 50 years.

Mama, Lisa, and I are people who have always been proud to get the job done. Even when Lisa was too sick to work full-time, she came by the greenhouse often to transplant a few containers for her customers. Many times she injured herself, but staying busy and making a difference continued to drive her. And she continued attending church–even during Covid. When the Methodist church where she was a member was closed for the pandemic, Lisa went to a nearby Baptist church, and sang in the choir when she was able.

Luckily she never fell victim to Covid. It could be said that she fell victim to cancer, but really she gave cancer a run for its money. She never gave up.

Photo Credit: Anna Montgomery

A few years ago, I read a memoir by Lucinda Franks, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting (in 1971) and one of the youngest people ever to win the award. The book, “Timeless: Love, Morganthau, and Me”, was written by Ms. Franks about the great love of her life, Robert Morgenthau, the longtime District Attorney for New York County. They met when she was 26 years old, and he was a 53-year-old widower with two grown children and a daughter still at home.

Not many people thought their relationship would last, but the naysayers were wrong. Lucinda and Bob were married for 42 years–from 1977 until he died at the age of 99 in 2019–and had two children of their own. Lucinda died of cancer in 2021, two years after her husband, at the age of 74.

Believing strongly in the power and force of love and following your intuition, Lucinda wrote:

I believe that love is no accident, no whisper from a random universe. It comes from deeper channels of longing and recognition; a collection of tiny lights that gathered force long ago.”

Lucinda Franks, “Timeless: Love, Morganthau, and Me”
Stanley’s Greenhouse decorated for the Beat the Winter Blues fundraiser benefitting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Knoxville, February 2019. Photo: Anna Montgomery

Lisa Diane Allen Stanley was indeed a tiny light that gathered force long ago. And she was a tree planted on a mountainside. Mighty winds whipped around her and blankets of snow at times covered her trunk, but her roots held fast and deep in the ground as other trees cracked and fell. She lifted her arms to the sun and encouraged others to do the same, She was a beacon on that hillside as many were inspired by her example of growth, faith, enthusiasm, generosity, and, most of all, love.

Lisa’s love was not random, but was directed to touch the people around her. She was a tiny light that blazed with a fervor that cannot be extinguished since her light was shared with so many people who loved her. And that light lives on.

~ Anna – 7/31/2022

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
This entry was posted in Autobiographical, Beauty, Blooming, Books, Childhood, Courage, Family, Love, Tribute, Women, Wonder and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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