Remembering Laura Laster Berger

Candy Saunders

I remember Laura and Marc sitting on our living room couch, Laura and I trying to convince Marc that the Wolcott Street house they now live in would be a sound one in which to raise their family to be. I remember the day Daniel was born. We walked into this tiny hospital room and it looked as if they had pitched camp in there with a cot set up for Marc to sleep in. All three of them were nestled in their pajamas in Laura's bed together in ecstasy. I remember when Dan took his first steps and when Alex arrived with eyes as striking as and even bigger than Dan's, as if anyone thought that possible. I remember Alex's earliest baseball days when his hat nearly covered both his ears. I remember vacations, birthday celebrations, back yard sock hops, and New Years Eve parties when we were all together. Then and in the last three and a half years I remember endless conversations the depths of which consistently altered who I was and what the world was.

Central to all of these memories, and I'm sure, to all of your memories, is the image of Laura's face, her warmest of eyes, so attuned to us as she listened and beckoned, always, for more, and her smile which spread across her face and so often broke into a laugh, which if we were lucky, and we so often were, squeaked and squealed, until we were taken by her to some other place of spontaneous joy that transformed us and made us know that living and loving didn't get any better than this. Surrounding her face was her halo of hair that defined her and seemed to envelop all that we loved when we looked at Laura. Laura loved having her hair done by Pam and Beth's hairdresser with the two of them assisting last week as Yvonne came to Laura's house to "make her beautiful." We had all dreaded the loss of Laura's hair, only to discover that her face was even more radiant as it was wrapped in the color of Laura's carefully chosen scarves and hats. Laura loved color. She loved wearing color. I adore the picture of her in Costa Rica, which Laura's brother, Ken, included on the beautiful website he made in Laura's memory. She loved spreading color, a reality Marc poignantly captured the night of Laura's 50th birthday when he told us of Laura's insistence that they paint a rainbow all the way across the bedroom wall over their bed in their first apartment. At that party he turned to her and said, "You have been painting rainbows on my wall for a quarter of a century - the walls that support and decorate my life." She decorated all of our lives.

However loved those of us outside the Berger household felt by Laura, we always knew that she was happiest when surrounded by Alex, Dan and Marc and I must now add Ben. Her face, when she talked about her boys, was different than when she talked about anything else. She was transformed in their presence. Nothing fed her more than her love of being a mother to Alex and Daniel. Their creative and independent thinking, their humor, their kindnesses, and their articulateness about what they felt and believed nurtured her very being. On Halloween Bill and I stopped by and I hollered "trick or treat" as I let myself in the door. Alex greeted me at the door and with his dry wit, familiar from our knowing it in his parents, said, "Whew, now there's a scary face!" We laughed loudly as I reprimanded him for being so unkind and we went upstairs where Laura lay weaker, still than the day before. With her eyes closed and her words very slurred, she asked me what Alex and I had been laughing at. I shared the story and she threw her head back and squealed out loud in laughter in a familiar way that I had not seen in a while. It was one of many times recently when no matter how weak or asleep she seemed, when she heard the voices or laughter of Dan or Alex, or when she thought she did, she was energized and was compelled to call out their names. She loved what they loved and whom they loved. Again last week, when she was struggling increasingly to converse, Dan brought into Laura's room his friend, Mark, whom Laura had known since he was tiny. Dan patted her toes as he and Mark smiled at and chatted with her. And she smiled back and asked how he was. She so loved seeing him and I was moved to think about who Laura had been to him and other of Dan's and Alex's friends in the many years they have known and been loved by her.

Her Dad and Mom were precious to her, as were her beloved Diana, Ken and Barbara. She tried hard to protect them from watching her get sicker. She was proud of her Dad as a writer and took pleasure in the part of him that was immersed in her own brilliant writing. One only had to watch her loving her own family to know of the love she knew growing up. I have been moved recently to talk to and be with Diana and Barbara as they nurtured their sister whose absence will surely be tortuous for them and for her close friend Jo Ann who has loved Laura since they were little girls. I love the image of Diana singing Joni Mitchell songs to and with Laura in the last weeks of her life.

Laura's life before she got sick was incredibly rich. The Learning Center for Deaf Children was a tiny place when she began working there as an audiologist. She counseled kids and parents long before she trained to be a counselor there. For those of you who don't know The Learning Center, it is more than a school where Laura worked for over 20 years. It's a group of people with hearts and souls one rarely finds in a workplace. They are dedicated to a culture and community of people that Laura loved and by whom she felt deeply nurtured. It makes perfect sense to me that Laura would have found this magical place in which to thrive. I remember the week Laura was formally asked by a group of women who made up Wings Collaborative Psychotherapy Associates to join their group. She felt honored and excited and was supported and loved by them for ten years as she maintained her homey third floor office. She was devoted to her clients whom she saw there and in Auburndale. My heart goes out to the loss they must feel now. She so hoped she would not have to say good bye to them.

The stories Laura and I shared centered on our experiences as mothers, wives and caretakers. We had many things in common including being spacy, forgetful and organizationally challenged. We shared stories of our efforts to negotiate our days that were more ridiculous, absurd and embarrassing than the last stories we had heard from the other. We laughed until we howled, until it hurt, and recently, until we cried and then laughed some more. Laura was so quick to capture the absurdity in reality and to help us be victorious over it, if only briefly, with her humor and warmth. I remember the two of us at a doctor's appointment right after her first surgery. This young male doctor at Beth Israel Hospital, surely lacking in the depth of character required to notice in whose presence he was, flippantly drew for Laura a chart that showed the statistics of the life expectancy of someone with her particular kind of tumor. As if giving a weather report on a mild day, he informed Laura that it was unlikely she would live for five years, and maybe not for one. Some wise architect must have envisioned us on this day, for as we walked numb, together out of that office and into the hallway, there was a bench right there two feet from a window looking over a garden, with its back to everything else. We sank together in a ball on that bench and wept for what seemed like hours until we were exhausted and until Laura, having noticed something, pulled her head away from mine and beckoned me with her eyes to see what she had noticed. Coming up the hallway ever so slowly were two very elderly ladies, one walking closely behind the other with her arm extended forward touching the first one, who surely had her dress on backwards. Their hair was disheveled, backs rounded, eyes straight ahead focusing only on the next steps to be taken. No affect expressed in their faces. Tubes in their noses, which connected them to oxygen tanks that they pulled on wheels behind them. I cried harder, in acknowledgment that, when the two of us got to this age, we, who had pushed baby carriages together, would not have each other's company to steer our oxygen tanks down hospital corridors where, at the rate we were going, we would be lucky to remember to put on our dresses at all. Laura, however, started laughing and found my good ear in which she whispered, "If I go before five years and you get to that place, I will laugh with you from wherever I am," at which time we laughed and screamed until we had slipped off the bench and were mangled in tears and choking laughter under it. I'm sure each of us has stories of Laura's humor lifting us from and to places we didn't know existed.

Laura was so surrounded by people who loved her these last three and a half years. We gathered at Beth Fredericks house last weekend where we shared stories and next steps for how we wanted to care for her. We stuffed ourselves with Heavenly food. Laura would have loved to have been there. And she was there eating with and taking in the love of her book group that had its most recent meeting just over a week ago in Laura's living room with Laura very present. Laura and Pam shared a spiritual path that significantly altered the last three years of Laura's life, not only for Laura, but also for Marc, Alex and Dan and the rest of us. Susan was the angel in the center of the wheel of care that Laura, Marc, Dan and Alex and all of us depended on. People gave in extraordinary ways, because of who each of them was, but mainly because of who Laura was. Being with Laura was a spiritual gift that each of us got to slowly unwrap again each time we were with her. And we learned that we, her family and friends, colleagues and clients, were not the only ones who were profoundly impacted by Laura's love. There were the stories of the Costa Rica tour guide whom Laura knew for an hour, who had had cancer himself, and who confirmed for Laura her sense that she would know some form of life after she died. There was the taxi cab driver who brought her home one night from the Newton Wellesley Hospital emergency room, and was touched enough in that ten minute cab ride to leave Laura a note the next morning on her front door, written in broken English, thanking her and telling her to call his direct number whenever she needed a ride. At one her last radiation treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital Laura was so weak that she struggled to walk but did not want a wheelchair. As I fought tears watching her go through yet another blood test, the nurse taking her blood sighed and Laura asked her if she was tired. Without taking her eyes off Laura's arm or changing her facial expression, she nodded that she was. Laura grinned her grin at this nurse and said, "Maybe I should be taking your blood." They then laughed out loud together and I could almost see the energy that this nurse took into her worn out body from this beautiful woman whose spirited body would not be shut down by all the poking, radiating and infusion of chemicals that it had endured. We left to go down to radiation. Laura was so tired. As the elevator doors opened to the basement, Laura collapsed as her legs gave way. People embraced her as she fell and within seconds six people had strapped her onto a stretcher and hovered over her with attention. She smiled the smile we came to know after one of her seizures, looked over at me and then up at them and said, "aren't they so impressive?" It was against every grain in Laura's body to stop connecting with people. It was only the gentle presence of the angel, Olivia, which gave Laura permission to cease being a caretaker. This sweetest of women, who somehow found herself in a conversation with Laura's sister, Barbara, in the Mass General Hospital elevator and two weeks later was hired by Marc and Laura to take care of Laura until she died, lovingly cared for Laura everyday, allowing her the comfort to finally let go of all that she loved.

Early last spring Laura, Pam and I went overnight to the beach home of Marc and Laura's close friend, Paul Levinson. Paul has been has been incredibly generous in sharing many things, this beach house among them, that have profoundly eased this painful journey for Marc, Laura, Dan and Alex. While there, Pam and I were focused on Laura, but Laura was focused on telling us countless stories about Paul's parents and family whom she admired. We took a blanket and the three of us lay on a still hard and windy beach that night under a beautiful sky. Pam and I promised that we would look for Laura among the stars after she died and Laura promised us that she would be there. Pam and I were unsuccessful in protecting her from the cold and we soon gathered our blankets to go back inside. On our way to the house we turned for a last look at the ocean and saw in the distance a thin, brilliant, red light in the sky. I had had enough spiritual experiences with Laura to no longer be surprised to be in the midst of something that I knew to be so unusual. The light got thicker as we watched and we soon realized that it was a red moon rising in the horizon. I had never seen a red moon before. I thought of Laura's love of color and I thought of her story about Victor, the tour guide in Costa Rica who had had an experience of God telling him it wasn't time yet for him to die yet. I wondered if this was some kind of sign to Laura that her time was coming and hoped that it wasn't. I shared my worry with Laura and once, again, she made it clear that however sad she was in thinking about leaving the people she loved, she felt some peace with the knowledge that she would face death soon.

Marc, Daniel and Alex, I want to thank you for letting us be a part of the love you have had for Laura. I hope it's OK to say this, Dan; forgive me for not having asked you first. I will never forget the morning Laura died when I walked into her room and she was covered from head to toe with beautiful flowers you had placed there. However riveted with grief you will be for a long time, know that you are surrounded with the love of many people beyond your Mom's. Laura talked many times of looking forward to listening to and being with you, in ways she couldn't predict, for as long as you live. She would so want to be able to comfort you forever. You have known a depth of love few people have. Your wives and your children will know your Mom through the strength, the courage, the sweetness, the depth of humor, and the honesty that she has imparted to you. Take her love and share it; light the world with it as she did.


With Love,
Candy Saunders
November 8, 2001

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