“I don’t know what you want to write about,” said Lily, her tiny frame folded in up in a swing hanging from the porch in her Carson City backyard.
“I don’t know either,” I answered, glancing at my notebook like an uninvited stranger. The dog dropped a pinecone at my feet, nudging me with her nose. But my hands stayed folded in my lap. “Maybe we’ll just talk.”
None of us knew what we were doing on that sunny Saturday afternoon, because there is no conventional way to talk about dying.
Just hours before, I heard from Brian Reedy, who I’d met when he taught at Carson High School and I was a newspaper reporter covering education.
“For some reason, I have a feeling that I should tell you … Lily is in hospice,” he messaged. “The cancer is just destroying her liver. They think she has a week or two.”
I showed the message to my husband. “You have to go,” he said.
I had expected a more somber scene. But Brian, 60, and Lily, 67, were just as I had always seen them — animated, engaged, gazing lovingly at one another. It didn’t seem real.
“I think it’s important to tell these stories,” Lily started. “We need to hear the success stories and the stories of hope. But I guess we need these stories, too.”
I questioned her idea of what it meant to be a “success.”
And we wondered at death. Why we convince ourselves we can avoid it somehow. And that to die is to fail.
It was something both she and Brian had to face early in their marriage.
The two met at Carson High School where Brian taught video production and Lily was a library aide.
For four years, Brian said, he “crushed on her” but was too afraid to say anything for fear of ruining their friendship.
Lily was oblivious.
“I really didn’t believe anyone was going to crush on me ever again in my life,” she said.
The two were married in 2007 and shortly thereafter, each took care of a dying parent.
“We really looked at life and death back then,” Brian said. “We’d tell each other the interesting and really inspiring stories. We ended each day with a smile or laughter.
“It opened us up to talking about it, and we’ve just continued talking about it.”
Lily remembers Brian’s mom feeling ready. Her father, however, didn’t want to go.
Lily understands both of them.
“Not being ready for death is OK,” she said. “I think that’s what gives you the umph to keep going. But, when the time comes, I’m ready.”
She’s trying to prepare her family as well. Together with Lily’s two sons, Sam, 32, and Greg, 31, and daughter-in-law, Liz, they are reading, “Being Mortal.”
“It’s an honest approach to the end of life,” Lily said. “It’s been really nice having that as a starting topic.”
Still, Brian said, he’s not there yet.
“I’m not looking at her gone,” he said. “I can’t look at her gone. She’s such an integral part of my life.”
So, he doesn’t think about it. He lives each moment.
“I told her no more TV,” he said. “We’re going to talk. We’re going to love. We’re going to live every moment together.”
For most of their marriage, they’ve been perfecting that art. Brian was diagnosed in 2010 with Parkinson’s disease. Lily received her breast cancer diagnosis in 2015. In 2018, it metastasized into her liver.
After retiring, they both dedicated themselves to advocacy work.
“It’s a passion for what you believe in,” Lily said. “It makes you want to get up and do your part.”
Even now, Lily worries for her fellow sufferers, pointing out that 40 percent of those who die from metastatic breast cancer are black.
“There’s a huge disparity of care in the cancer realm,” she said.
She continues to check in with her support group at the Carson Tahoe Cancer Center.
Brian told of a recent conference where Lily was a keynote speaker. Failing technology made her lose her presentation, so she spoke off the cuff.
“I stopped what I was doing. I was just in awe,” Brian recalled. “That’s when advocacy is at its best, when you’re just telling your truth.”
He’s looking at her like that now. In awe. She smiles.
And they talk about how lucky they’ve been.
“We are surrounded by blessings,” Lily said.
Brian tells how just a few days ago — the day he received the call that it was time to call in hospice — a father and son crew came in to clean the windows.
The duo overheard as Brian made phone calls, in a daze of grief and fear.
When Brian attempted to pay, the man refused. He told Brian he’d had a stroke a few years earlier and wanted to pay forward all the support he received from the community.
“We saw this again and again,” Brian said. “You can never get down about what you’re dealing with because so many people are there to help us.
“I don’t think we’ve ever asked, ‘Why us?’ Instead, it’s been us asking why we have so many people who are so good to us.”
How were they so lucky to find each other?
“Why are you so good to me?” Lily will ask Brian.
“What do you mean?” he responds. “You taught me how to be a good care partner. I’m just an echo of your heart.”
And that makes Lily think back to the original question. What are we trying to say here? What kind of story are we trying to tell? Is it a success story?
“Finding Brian was a precious gift,” she says. “I learned to love and receive love. I could never think of my life as anything less than a success. That’s all that love — it’s truly made a difference. Love is the key.”