On April 10, 2020, after 51 hours of labor, Danielle and I welcomed our daughter, Mariella, (little Mary) into the world.
On April 29th, 2020, my Mom, Mary Margellen Howard Moran, was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer. This came after she confidently strode into the emergency room at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital and declared to the intake nurse that she had Pancreatic Cancer. She had felt nauseous for about 6 months and began to develop back pain. She had thought it was the flu, and then when the pandemic started, she was fearful that she had contracted Covid-19. Being responsible, she quarantined, but without a proper diagnosis, she kept chugging along, thinking that it was something she would get over with a proper regimen of optimism, Vitamin-C, herbal tea, healthy eating, and exercise.
You see, she was relentless. She was 65 years old and by now a seasoned GS-13 Contracting Officer at GSA (General Services Administration). She had an unlimited contracting warrant, meaning that the US Government trusted her to award its contracts of limitless size, a designation reserved for the most experienced CO’s. This was a remarkable achievement and a testament to the intense commitment with which she applied herself to the new career she began in her late 40’s, beginning through an internship program designed for young college graduates. It promised accelerated advancement from your GS-4 to GS-8, and beyond. All the while she was expected to earn a master’s degree in contract management. This was her foot in the door, but it was her ambition and drive that led to her taking positions at the US Department of Navy, Department of Homeland Security, and then again at GSA, all to climb the ladder in the face of sexism and ageism, as she proved herself capable of greater responsibilities and greater means to provide for us and create the life she strove to live.
As she advanced in her career, she was able to experience the telework lifestyle, which blurred lines between work-life balance: turning it off and being on. She’d be logged in for 10-12 hours a day, with 15-minute breaks every hour or so. Each break would ideally allow her to earn her steps, run outside, and tend to her sprawling beautiful garden. Or perhaps, if the weather was not amenable, she would instead work on a homework quiz for one of the University of Maryland classes she was taking, a regimen that started her career almost 20 years prior.
She wouldn’t stop. And why would she? She was a planner, and she had a plan that she was working towards. She would keep working until she was 95. She felt confident that so long as she could continue to expand her technical knowledge about the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) while earning her doctorate, she could keep working and provide value to her team. That would also give her enough time for her to pay off the mortgages on the two houses she had, one that we lived in since 2005, which my sister now lives in, and the other being the newly renovated house that she helped my grandmother, Gloria, purchase before her passing in 2018.
Working until she was 95 would also give my mom enough focused, productive years for her to master the Italian and French languages, publish family histories of several of her ancestorial genealogies, travel and trace all of their respective towns and graves, and then explore the communities in Europe from which those ancestors came. And when not on the road, she would be able to read. And by “read”, I mean READ. She loved books and loved to consume them. A goal she had set included reading every Pulitzer prize-winning authors’ works from beginning to end! This love and immense thirst led to her setting up an online used bookstore through Amazon, which she operated for nearly 5 years. Sourcing inventory for this entrepreneurial venture enabled her to amass an extensive library of works of literature, history, business, politics, horticulture, and literature.
Her thirst for learning and connecting with her ancestors led to her involvement in the Major William Thomas Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). There, she found camaraderie and the opportunity to serve as the Chapter’s Treasurer. She would manage the books, and on occasion, host chapter events, both of which she gave her great satisfaction.
Her skills would not be short-lived or her accomplishments short remembered, because she was going to live until she was 120, a feat she felt comfortable with so long as she adhered to the healthy guidelines she had adopted when guiding my sister Dorothy’s recovery from brain cancer in the 1990s. She believed it, and so did I.
My mother didn’t stop and nor should she have. She had a gift, a verve for life that can only be actualized by exploring all the ways we can imagine life being lived. She was a force of nature embodied.
Alas, these plans were cut short. But even this seems to have been something she understood for in the header section of every one of her journal pages, read Proverb 3: 5-6:
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart and lean not unto your own understanding. In all thy ways, acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy path.”
She understood or at least felt she had to remind herself that despite her best-laid plans, it was not her planning, intention, desires that ultimately would determine her path before her diagnoses or after.
In August 2020, our family unit, which had come to St. Mary’s County, MD some 19 years before to begin anew, converged for again her final months. Danielle and I along with our baby girl, Mariella (little Mary), then 4 months old, took advantage of the latitude enabled by our business and committed ourselves to ensure my mother had the support that so many were deprived of during the pandemic: everything she needed. We joined Michael, her partner of many years, and Dorothy to inject life into a situation in which Cancer had begun to drain it. Together, we did it. Whether it be spa days, quality time playing or napping or reading to her namesake, family meals, chores around the house, or pending action items that had previously driven her daily intention; together we did it all. With each complete, there was a palpable relief of her stress.
As the weeks went on and her disease advanced, the list of pending to-dos were cleared or delegated her, our focus turned more about providing quality of life care in conjunction with her hospice. While her partner of many years, Michael Hallett, handled the medicine, I focused on other comforts of doing everything I could to keep the energy in the house positive, happy, celebratory of her incredible life. I would read to her, play her favorite music, work with TLC to realize her visions the goals of her garden, or whatever else the day brought. Danielle would prepare beautiful meals of her favorite dishes like lobster and ensure she was always looking her best. With each day, I was reminded of our lives together, absent of ego.
Soon my mother lost her desire to eat, yet her strength never waned. She accepted her mandated fast with unbelievable strength and stoicism and our beautiful dance of reading aloud, walking outside to admire the gardens, and watching repeat episodes of Yellowstone and the movie Little Big Farm continued for weeks. It was the best we could do in rolling out her custom-tailored red carpet.
As August passed and September faded, October came, and on its first day, a beautiful Wednesday, I read aloud Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven and shared aloud plans I had for beautifying Dorothy’s home and the garden my Mom had toiled in for years. At that moment, after months of stoic resistance against her, the terminal fate she was charged with months prior, my mother was finally let go. At that moment, our world lost a true dynamo, an incredible woman.
I share this because I know Mom would have wanted me to in order to remind my friends that life is precious. Hard work stands on its own. It’s never too late to learn something new. Every day is a blessing. Family is core. Planning is powerful, but above all, Trust in the LORD with all thine heart, and lean not unto your own understanding. In all thy ways, acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy path. I love you, Ma.
Mary Margellen Howard MoranMay 4, 1955-October 1, 2020