GIFTS FROM MARIAN
“Spears did the sweetest thing for me. Sally Connelly loves butterflies and the new birth they represent. I asked him to paint one for me to give her and he produced the most gorgeous, small watercolor in bold yellow and blacks—the butterfly was on a marigold. She came by today and picked it up…was thrilled with having it… I’m so glad Spears did that for me.” My friend Marian Westbrook wrote these words in her journal less than one month before she died on Valentine’s Day, 1995. She had just celebrated her 48th birthday when she lost her four-year battle with breast cancer. She packed so much joy and love into each day and passed that on to everyone in her life.
We met in the late 1970s when she visited a Sunday School class I attended at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia. We connected instantly. She had a son Austin who was a year younger than Patrick and was just getting a divorce from his father. She was beautiful with a wonderful laugh and we shared our experiences of being single working mothers. A year or so later, she began dating Spears. He was a few years younger, had never married, and was eager to coach little Austin in basketball. Spears taught at the criminal justice academy and was a freelance photographer. They married in mid-1980, when Austin was 8. She became executive director at the SC Board of Medical Examiners, and we often met for lunches downtown. By the late 1980s she’d found a wonderful church home—St. Martin’s in the Fields Episcopal Church. Just after her 44th birthday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a terrible shock but she and Spears took it on together and she prayed for healing –always ending with, “Thy will be done.” After surgery and chemotherapy and remission, she had a recurrence and by July, 1994, had to take a medical retirement from her job.
She knew Christmas, 1994, would be her last one. She decided she’d love to host festive drop-ins for all her friends. She was very weak and thin but determined. Spears said they could cater the party to save her energies—but she insisted on preparing several traditional favorites—her fruit cake, the candied grapefruit peel her mother had made. The guest list was so big they had to have FOUR drop-ins on consecutive nights to accommodate the crowds! Marian got several holiday outfits to wear—and she sat on a tall stool by the door to greet everyone. There was a beautifully decorated live tree, poinsettias and other flowers, a wonderful table with punch and holiday foods, Christmas music—so much love and joy. Heather, Patrick and I went to our assigned drop-in together.
She died on Valentine’s Day. She had planned every detail of her funeral at St. Martin’s and Jim Abbott comforted the huge crowd of her friends there for the service that cold, rainy February afternoon. She wasn’t finished loving us though. When I got home that evening, an exquisite bouquet was at my front door from the city’s finest florist. It was from Marian. She’d arranged for these final gifts to some of her close friends.
Spears later asked me to help him create a book with excerpts from her journal. We included many of the sketches and paintings he had done for her during her illness. My graphic designer friend David Schmidt helped us produce 1,000 copies of a beautiful booklet celebrating Marian’s life in her own words. Her priest Jim Abbott wrote an introduction to each section—Giving Thanks…No Matter What, Quiet Times, Gifts, Prayer and God’s Will, Remembering the Past…Embracing the Present, Celebrating Christmas, and Austin. The Title What a Wonderful Life I Have! was her phrase in midst of her painful final days.
Spears later married another wonderful woman, Vickie, who has honored Marian’s memory over the years. They both have loved Austin through many hard times. He is now a school counselor and raising his teenage daughter as a single parent. Marian’s wonderful life continues!