Friday, February 3, 2017

SHE COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH:* In Remembrance of Mary Dunn Brown

*apologies to Emily Dickinson
Mary Dunn Brown: 1/27/1958-1/26/2017
My grandparents had thirteen grandchildren, but only ten of us remain on this earth. We lost my cousin Mary on January 26, 2017,  just hours before her 59th birthday. Her carriage was cancer. Her journey was swift. Mary had no use for a prolonged ride down the streets of Diagnosis, Prognosis, and Treatment. She had a life to live, patients to care for.  Death could be damned if it thought she was going to sit through that plodding trip that she, as a nurse of over 35 years, knew by heart.  Since she would not stop for death, death stopped for her in a hospital room at St. Elizabeth's in Youngstown, Ohio where she resided a little over a week, surrounded constantly by her loving family.

The day she became an angel on a earth - aka: a nurse
As cousins, we came in packs of three or four, based on age. Our pack consisted of me, Mary, and our cousin Marie. Mary and I were born a little over two months apart, and Marie came along nine months after she did. So, if you do the math, we were practically Irish Triplets, if that's possible for cousins.
They laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they even talk alike. 
Growing up, we shared lots of traditions. Every year, our mothers would collect all of us and meet at one house so we could all be together for a viewing of The Wizard of Oz.  For years, we had no idea that the world turned to color when Dorothy stepped into Oz until our grandparents bought the first color TV set in the neighborhood.  Speaking of our grandparents, they were the focal point of the family. Besides every holiday, we were there most Sundays after church. The adults gathered around the table drinking coffee and talking about adult things. We kids congregated into our packs to play games, watch TV, or take over one of the empty bedrooms to talk. Once Mary, Marie and I reached adolescence, we spent many hours walking around the blocks with our arms folded in front of our chests, our heads leaned in to each other, sharing secrets.
As a family, we were very Kennedy-esque.
When we got to spend the night at our grandparents, there were traditions. When we were still small enough, our pajamas were Grandpa's undershirts, which came to our knees. There was chocolate milk made with Hershey's syrup plus a bowl of cereal before bed. There was TV viewing far later than any of us were allowed at home. Once we were older, Grandpa was given the job as our personal chauffeur, driving us back and forth from the mall or dropping us off at the movies or bowling alley. We played records in our Grandparents' basement until it was time for Grandpa to listen to his baseball games on the little radio he kept down there just for that purpose. We slept in the living room in front of the television where we'd giggle until one or two a.m. but were never told to hush up and go to sleep.
Our doting grandparents
Marie and I moved away, she to Florida and me to Pennsylvania. We all graduated from our high schools and saw each other fewer and fewer times. At our grandfather's viewing, Mary and I sat on either side of our grandmother offering her whatever comfort two devastated 18-year-olds could provide. We managed to get together a few times during our college years and go to bars to show each other how sophisticated we'd become. We spun each other in circles dancing to the Beer Barrel Polka at my wedding. At her older brother's wedding, she introduced me to Jeff, whom she referred to as "the nicest guy I've ever met."  I had to agree when, a few months later at our grandmother's funeral, Jeff arrived with bouquet of blooming lilacs (our grandmother's favorite flower.) Soon enough, I danced with her at their wedding. Marie, meanwhile, the youngest of us three, was married and had three babies. We were officially grown.
Mary and Jeff on their wedding day.

 Life got busy. Though Marie and I lived in the same town, we still didn't see each other as often as we could have. Mary lived on the other side of the state, so, with the exception of weddings and funerals, we no longer saw her. When Mary's brother died in 1990, I couldn't attend the memorial because I'd just had a baby. My siblings attended, and when they came home I asked them, "How is Mary? How is she handling it?" My sister said, "I think she's being strong for her mother." Mary had a son not long afterwards. When they were still boys, her son, Justin, stayed with mine and their older cousin while we adults attended Marie's oldest daughter's wedding. After the wedding, Mary and I popped open a bottle of rum and sat at my kitchen table talking until 3 a.m. We vowed we would get together more often. That was September, 2001.

But, the world moved too fast. We were so busy!  Next thing we knew, our children graduated from high school. Marie became a grandmother. Mary lost her mother. Not long after, I lost my brother. The last time I saw Mary was at my father's memorial service in 2011. Six years ago. Six. Years.

Mary's parents, Shirley and Jim Dunn
The news of Mary's illness came fast and furious. On January 8, she was at her father's 87th birthday party, then, a few weeks later, she was in ICU with stage 4 cancer that seemed to come out of nowhere. She requested that hospice be called, and, in one of the most selfless acts a person can do, she asked for a DNR and refused intubation. It is impossible to comprehend the depth of her bravery for, by making these requests, she was both accepting death and sparing her family further suffering and pain. This is not surprising as the Mary I knew was loyal and true, usually caring more about others than herself.
Mary (front row 1st on the left) and her siblings, grandparents, cousin Marie and aunt and uncles.
Mary only had 58 years on this earth, but I know she packed a lot into them. None of us are guaranteed another day, much less another year or decade. Mary, who spent the last few years of her career as a hospice nurse, knew this better than most. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is to be Mary. Live your life while you have it, and when the time comes for it to end, do it on your own terms. Also? Visit your cousins.


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute. I grew up in Canfield and remember Mary from the school bus.

  2. Beautiful tribute for my beautiful friend and sister.

  3. Beautiful triubte for a beautiful friend and sister.