Heart of Treasure Valley

Inspired by mom's cancer fight, Idaho woman became a death midwife

The phone call came in January. It was her mother. Telling her about the lump in her right breast.

On the other end of the phone, Kate Riley reeled. She couldn’t breathe, she could barely stand. The world stopped; she was numb.

“My mother cannot die.”

That’s where Kate started: In fear. Fear was where her journey began — but it is not where it ended. In between, she and her mother shared deeply as they delved into what it meant to live with cancer — in spite of cancer — embracing cancer.

“This is not just a physical diagnosis. It’s going to affect you on an emotional level, a psychic level, a spiritual level. How can it not?”

Her mother, Vee Riley, lived for 16 more years, defining health as seeking wholeness. For this was Vee’s philosophy:

“What does a lump in the breast have to do with one’s soul? Everything.”

Kate took on the role of supporter and companion, asking curious questions, looking inward. Four years after Vee found the lump, they published a book, drawing on their journals, exposing their raw emotions and search for — not answers, but — equanimity as the days unfolded.

“How can you not react to cancer? How can you not react to being told?”

A diagnosis of cancer doesn’t equate death. But it certainly opens the question.

Vee wrote: “Smiling into my fear is a new way of looking into it deeply. Hello fear. Let’s become friends. I no longer want to shove you away.”

Kate: “No matter how hard we try, we cannot outrun death. And when we’re hit with a diagnosis such as cancer, we are forced to examine our mortality in ways never before.”

Today, Kate is a death midwife, now living in Hailey, working with people who are dying or who have a cancer diagnosis, people facing life-changing crises. It is a role that she has hewn out of her own life experience, shaped by her mother’s journey through cancer and by her own commitment to living a conscious, spiritual life.

Kate quotes her mother’s favorite Chinese proverb: “We are born and we die — all of us. And in between these points, we live our lives and grow our souls.”

• • • 

Vee consulted doctors but declined chemotherapy and initially chose meditation, long walks in the woods and along the beach, energy work, intentional reading, deep thinking.

Vee wrote: “(I) needed to reach even more deeply into my spiritual core to find healing.”

She was very intentional about the process.

Kate: “My mom’s pretty rare; the minority, I think. (She said), ‘Oh, I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, and I’m going to see what this has to teach me.’”

As they searched, both Vee and Kate found the language of “battling” cancer to be counter-productive.

“We all have things that come up in our lives. I don’t like to look at (what we do) as ‘beating’ anything or ‘fighting’ anything. It’s just what is, really, and we have to learn how to move through our challenges.

“And then there’s that other line. … We are all showing up for life. We are all survivors.”

• • • 

Two years after she found the lump, Vee felt ready to have surgery. Acceptance is a word she used, along with trust.

Vee wrote: “I may have lost a breast, but I gained my soul. …

“We always have choice. I have chosen to go within when faced with a decision, being the only one who can know the needs of my soul. …

“I have journeyed far. Now, and until my door closes, I am blessed to live in joy and peace.”

That’s the story that Kate likes to tell. About the peace — the radiant peace — that her mother came to embody.

“There’s a beauty in that, when you can witness it in someone who is going through a challenge.”

In the years since her mother found the lump, Kate has deepened her commitment to helping people find their own peace — people who are dying, people diagnosed with cancer, and their families; people who don’t want to assume anything.

“I think it’s important to go inside and ask those questions: What do I really want to do with this? What are my choices and options? And then to come to a place where you can make sound decisions based on what it is you want — and not what somebody else wants. …

“(In people) who are living with cancer, I detect an urgency, one that propels the individual into asking deeper questions. There is something about this — and it can be empowering.”

Kate helps people who want to address more than just the decisions about their body. Sometimes it’s hard; physicians are not trained to help people with spiritual matters.

“When you’re only having the physical addressed, I don’t think there’s room for all those other questions, so they get suppressed. Asking someone, ‘What does it feel like to have cancer?’ or ‘What does it feel like to be dying?’ They open up. Oftentimes, with this explosion of tears, because somebody’s asked them that. You’re not negating it, you’re not dancing around.

“You can’t dance around cancer. You can’t dance around death. You can dance with them, but not around them.”

And, she notes, asking questions about the end of life are not just for those who face a life-threatening disease.

“It’s so easy to come to the end of our time here, ill-prepared. I think it’s a good idea to prepare well in advance.”

• • • 

Years after Vee’s surgery, she decided on radiation to shrink a growing tumor in her shoulder.

“She said, ‘I’m going to picture this beam of light (the radiation) as divine light, coming into my being.’

That beam of light did, in fact, shrink the tumor completely. However, in January 2014, Vee was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. She had nine tumors; seven of them in her bones. That was it. Vee declined all further treatment. As she lived life on her own terms, now Vee was ready to face whatever came next, and she made a request to Kate.

“She asked me that day to lean into her dying. … Something (had) shifted. I saw something so expansive, gazing into my mother’s eyes at that moment. …

“My stages of presence grew. I was capable of being present with less fear, if that makes sense.”

Kate remembers her father’s death, in the hospital, in the intensive care unit, hooked to machines. He hadn’t wanted that, but he hadn’t been able to talk about all those decisions before it was too late.

“It didn’t prolong his life; it prolonged his death.”

Together, though, Kate and her mother talked about everything. They even arranged to pick up the cardboard cremation container in advance. When Vee finished collaging it, she attached a small sign that read “Vee’s Chariot.” It would carry her body to the crematory.

“I think that was healing for her. In the midst of living with nine tumors, knowing she was not going to seek treatment, by taking the time to design her cremation container — it was beautiful — it brought her closer to her death. In a wondrous way.”

For nine months, Vee lived with her tumors and prepared. Death did not come as quickly as she wished, and she was in more pain than she realized would come. It was hard. And yet she refused morphine; she was going to be fully alive until she wasn’t — as intentional in death as she was in life.

At 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2014, Vee slipped away; she was 87 years old. When she arrived by Vee’s bedside moments later, Kate was filled with an enormous love, along with emotions she didn’t know she was capable of feeling.

“To say, ‘You did it, Mom, you died.’ I was happy and full of joy; it felt like the whole room was filled with so much beauty and so much joy. I was so proud of her. And she did die on her own terms — with nine malignant tumors growing and who knows what else.”

Fourteen years prior, Kate had written about a shift in her thinking.

“Instead of saying, ‘I can’t imagine life without you,’ I (changed) my thought pattern. My affirmation for today is, ‘May your Spirit shine through wherever you are.’ May I remain open to the experience always.”

• • • 

About a year and a half ago, Kate had her own health challenge — an illness that left her thinking that this was the end.

“(Illness) forces you to ask questions; it forces you to look at life in a whole different way. I thought I had come to terms with, and accepted, my own mortality, but … it shook me up. …

“Pain is not fun. It can take you down. It can wear you down. There’s so many uncertainties in life and the one certainty is death. I am so OK with it now … but I really had to reach acceptance. …

“Momento mori. It’s Latin for, ‘Remember we’re all going to die.’”

The illness taught her much.

“Digging deep into the labyrinth of emotions — varied as they are; beliefs, perceptions and the priorities. Yes, it forced me to re-order my priorities.

“This is the nature of things when catapulted into a state of despair — or cancer or any illness. It’s a private affair, one between me and God, that ultimately deepened my spiritual life.

“By rethinking and re-creating how we live and die, we have the opportunity to bring creativity and a sacredness to both experiences. …

“I live life more fully.”

Conscious Living: Starting with the end in mind (a workshop)

6-8 p.m., Wed., Nov. 16, at Shangri-La Tea Room and Cafe. Kate Riley will facilitate a two-hour workshop about practicing the awareness of our own inevitable death, and rethinking and re-creating how we live and die. Tickets are $20 and are available in advance at Shangri-La Tea Room, 1800 W. Overland Road; 424-0273. Seating is limited.

Read more

Kate and Vee Riley wrote “The Green Velvet Journal” in the two years after Vee found the tumor; it is now out of print. Kate recently released “Launching Vee’s Chariot: An End-of-Life Tale” recounting the nine months before Vee’s death. Available at Amazon or at KateRiley.org.