Thursday, November 28, 2013

Helping Hands

On this day of thanksgiving, I want to give thanks for my sister Lissa, for her family, for all of you who have been a part of her life, as well as for those who have read her blog and been touched by it.  We are so lucky to have known Lissa, and I hope she unites us in a determination to live our own lives as fully as Lissa did hers.

Lissa's legacy was captured beautifully in so many different ways during her memorial service last week.  For those of you who were unable to attend, I have included the remarkable homily delivered by her friend and pastor, Reverend Clover Beal.

Elizabeth “Lissa” Dorr McKinley           
Rev. Clover Reuter Beal, Assoc Pastor, Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
Nov. 20, 2013          Memorial Service: “savinglissa”

On behalf of Forest Hill Church and my colleague John Lentz I want to thank the staff of Fairmount Church for hosting this worship service in celebration of Lissa’s life.

Lissa and I met at our friend, Pam’s, birthday dinner in March of 2010. We were seated next to each other because both our husbands were absent.  Lissa was in the midst of another chemo treatment so she was bald and beautiful. No hair and utterly gorgeous.

Although I’d not met Lissa personally before then, I had heard about her -- her journey, her strength, her achievements. Now don’t judge me, but I have to confess, I really did not want to like her.   So beautiful. So accomplished. So strong.     SO TALL.    “Please, please, please don’t be really nice too,” I quietly prayed.

But she was.  And really smart and cool and kind and selfless.  And, she loved the poet, Mary Oliver.

At the end of that evening after talking, eating, toasting and offering up poetry, Lissa said to me, “I’d like to visit your church.”   Sure, I said, assuming I would never see her -- because many people, when they find out you’re a minister, seem to feel like the polite thing to say is “I’ll visit your church sometime.”

But the next morning, there she was.  In a pew.  All by herself.  Beaming. Afterward, Lissa came up and said, “I LOVED this.”  And she kept coming back. She and Alice, her mom, joined Forest Hill a year later.

Lissa being Lissa, in her earnestness and courage to dive right into LIFE, asked if she could join the faith exploration group we offer annually. So, that September, she committed to walking with 12 complete strangers who would become companions on her spiritual journey for 28 weeks as they explored their relationships with God and their spiritual gifts.

At the opening weekend retreat, each participant was invited to share his or her hope and intention for the journey. Lissa started us out by saying, “I want to learn to die well,“ and she told us about her cancer.

As you can imagine, the whole tenor of the group was set in that moment. There would be no masquerading, no hiding from one another.   Her vulnerability cracked us open, allowing us to be more honest, more authentic, more ourselves.  Don’t we all want that-- to be seen and celebrated for who we are?   It starts with one person like Lissa who is willing to step out into uncomfortable terrain of vulnerability.

Lissa occasionally talked about her fears around dying, and her desire to be healed. She spoke honestly about her doubts about God but also about her growing faith in a compassionate God who walked with her in her illness.    Lissa had that rare ability to be transparent about each new obstacle she had to face, and yet not turn the attention upon herself. Remarkable.

To die well means to live well.   And living well means that when we depart this life, we leave behind something beautiful.

Living well means that with every experience we have, we open ourselves to change.

Whether it was traveling in the U.S. or Mexico, China or exploring Machu Pichu; being in Costa Rica with a group of cool women seeking inner healing, or going with a church group to Turkey and Greece -- Lissa did the things she did, not just for her own enjoyment nor to complete her bucket list.

Lissa allowed herself to be transformed by those places and people and encounters.  Her choice to live well and to diewell, opened her to personal transformation. Which allowed her to share more joy, more goodness,  more kindness with others.

God willing, what we each will leave behind when we die will be a lovely, lingering fragrance that surrounds those we love-- and in Lissa’s case, the thousands of people whom she never even met. And today, after NPR’s and the NY Time’s coverage of her, we celebrate that even more people will be impacted by her.

Countless people felt an intimacy with Lissa because she risked sharing her pain and her joys through her writing.

I never asked Lissa why she called her blog “savinglissa.”  In the Hebrew scripture the word to be saved (yasha) means liberation, deliverance, rescue -- being set free.

Lissa was not cured from cancer, but she was saved.   She claimed her cancer.
Some people choose to see their illness as the end of their life.
Lissa chose to see her illness as the start of her vocation.

In a profound sense we were all saved by Lissa’s life.   It was as if she and God had made a pact to offer up her illness to others    so that others could be saved too.

We were set free -- even if only for a few moments while we were reading a new blog entry.

Set free from our petty irritations and whining.
             from self pity,

Set free from ignoring the reality that death WILL come to us all.
             and set free from the denial of our own pain;

Set free from shallow theology that claims that if we only pray hard enough, God will take away illness.

To witness a person who chooses to live well and to die well    can set free     even the truest cynic.

Lissa’s illness became a kind of prayer.
It was not a saccharine sweet prayer though.

She was a real mom raising two remarkable kids. She was a real wife living out her marriage covenant to a wonderful husband for over 25 years.  She was a doctor and mentor bringing lessons of human compassion to students. She was a daughter, a sister, a friend to so, so many. She belonged to a church family.

How she did NOT lose heart --in the face of such challenges, meeting them instead with dignity and love and laughter-- is a beautiful mystery of grace.

Lissa chose this scripture for her service too; it’s from the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Lissa was not cured from her illness. But by the grace of God in choosing to die well, Lissa was saved and made whole.

We give thanks for the 19, 398 days Lissa was a gift to the world and to each of us.

Like a beautiful fragrance, her life will linger on.

            Thanks be to God for Elizabeth Dorr McKinley.
So, friends, give thanks this Thanksgiving Day for Lissa, for your families, for your friends, for all that you hold dear, and for the life that you have been given.  Live it loud, live it with joy, live it creatively.  Live, laugh, love; share all that you are with as many people as you can and have fun doing it.

I close with the poem that Lissa asked to be read at her memorial service.  She found this poem helpful when she was tired, or afraid, or sad.  She read it often, and it helped her find peace. I believe she wanted to share this with each of you at this time to help you find healing, from the sadness of her death or from whatever is happening in your life right now that is causing you pain.  So, for Lissa, I challenge you to read this several more times, ponder it, explore it, and let it help you find healing peace.  And if this poem doesn’t work for you, find a poem that does—she’d like that.

Brent McKinley

The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Click to view the program from the memorial service after the jump.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


In the weeks before her passing, Lissa, her family, and her hospice nurse were interviewed by a New York Times reporter who was investigating the way in which physicians die. A week or so later, Lissa was photographed for this piece as well.  As you can imagine, Lissa was eloquent and honest about her life choices. It is fitting that, even now, she continues to teach us about facing cancer head-on and meeting  death on her own terms.

We have heard that the NPR Marketplace piece that includes Lissa's voice and statements about doctors and dying will air this Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. on Marketplace (sometime between 6:30-7:00) and the print piece will be in The New York Times in the 'your money' section--don't ask me why--on the 20th. It will most likely be on the front page of that section.

Don’t miss it!!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dear Readers,

Thank you, thank you, for reading Lissa's blog and taking her into your hearts. Her act of writing became a sharing of her soul's journey, and she was ever grateful for the audience that helped draw her into further explorations.

However, I must tell you that Lissa passed away last Saturday, November 9th. As she weakened, we moved her from her napping bed in the living room to a small room above her cherished patio, festooned with windows that hugged her. As friends visited, she rallied to give a hug and her loving smile, then slept peacefully until the next visit. We created an art room in the living room so that all family and friends could create some type of art (and all types there were!) to ease her transition and to express their love. At the end, Lissa was resting peacefully and without pain, surrounded by her beloved family, Chip, Will, Katie, Alice, and me, who hung the art around her, read her favorite poems and loved her hard.  I promise, we did.

I thought you might like to see that wonderful room and art as well as all the poetry books and Laurel yearbooks that friends have sent over the past few months. We still felt her presence here!

 But most of all, I want you to remember Lissa like this:

 A memorial service will be held on Wednesday, November 20, 2013, at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, OH, at 2pm.  Below, please read the obituary from The Plain Dealer.

Brent McKinley
November 14, 2013

--> Elizabeth “Lissa” Dorr McKinley, MD, MPH, age 53 of Cleveland Hts., OH, passed away on Saturday, November 9, 2013.  Beloved wife of Robert “Chip” Gilkeson, MD; loving mother of William Rowland Gilkeson and Katherine Merrick Gilkeson; dear daughter of Alice McKinley and the late Rowland P. McKinley, Jr.; dear sister of Brent McKinley (Richard Levitt) of Stamford, CT; beloved aunt to six nieces and nephews, and cherished friend.  Her long, personal engagement with cancer informed her evolving sense of empathy in medicine and encouraged her “to teach and model humanism in patient care,” particularly of cancer patients. She spoke nationally and internationally on these subjects, helped to create a curriculum reflecting humanism at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine as well as at The Gathering Place. Lissa has been recognized as a superlative doctor, teacher, and human: the Blackwell Society at Case was renamed the Blackwell-McKinley Society in her honor; she was selected by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation as an Honorable Supporter of Breast Cancer Awareness (2006); she was awarded the Kaiser-Permanente Award for Excellence in Teaching at CWRU School of Medicine (2010) and the Clifford J. Vogt, MD ’34 Alumni Service Award (2012); and she was chosen as a Distinguished Alumna (2008) of Laurel School. Personally, when her disease entered a new phase in 2006, she began a blog, “Saving My Life: One Poem at a Time,” that has inspired many with her poetry, loving observations on life and family, and candid explorations of her experiences. In her memory, the family prefers that those who wish may make contributions in her name to Hospice of the Western Reserve, 17876 St. Clair Ave, Cleveland, OH 44110, or The Gathering Place, 23300 Commerce Park, Beachwood, Ohio 44122.  A Memorial Service will be held at Fairmount Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, November 20, 2013, at 2pm.