For beloved social activist, a life well-lived will end too soon
Connie Murillo lies in bed, eyes closed, with her signature plastic-framed glasses still perched on her face.
Her vibrantly tattooed forearms gently rise and fall with each breath, her hands crossed and resting on her stomach. The meadowlarks’ singing and a persistent cow’s mooing penetrate the sliding-glass door by her bed, the ambiance of the Carpenter farm on Orchard Mesa.
The mechanical click of the medicine pump interrupts the call of a red-winged blackbird and the laughter from children swinging on the playset outside. The bag of liquid medicine hangs suspended from the headstock of an electric guitar by the bed, delivered to her body via the port in her chest and providing relief from pain and nausea as she slips away.
Nine days earlier, it became apparent this was the beginning of the end, and Connie has been in this bed ever since.
Her best friend of 13 years, Laurel Carpenter, awakes from a nap next to her, gently stroking Connie’s dark hair, now streaked lightly with stray gray hairs like bits of tinsel.
On the backside of Laurel’s left arm, a single tattoo contrasts Connie’s rainbow assortment of ink.
Laurel’s tattoo, her first and only, is a rocking chair. Her smart-ass remark when people ask about it is that she really likes furniture, but the symbol pays tribute to Connie and is a remembrance that life is terminal.
After Connie’s cancer diagnosis and grim prognosis less than two years ago, she told Laurel, “We were supposed to be old ladies together. We were supposed to be in rocking chairs on the porch, watching our grandkids play in the yard.”
Now, as Laurel cares for her dying friend, the tattoo is a reminder to treasure each day.
“She’ll never get to be an old lady,” she said.
When Connie discovered she had breast cancer in 2015, she was less than a year away from graduating from Colorado Mesa University. She noticed a lump, saw a doctor six months later, and received a diagnosis that she was dealing with stage 4 invasive ductal carcinoma.
She was student-teaching social studies at Grand Junction High School, a subject she was incredibly passionate about sharing with students, a natural extension of her community activism and education.
Connie became known as a community activist when she lived with Laurel and Jacob Carpenter and their friend Jacob Richards in a collective house. They held signs at 12th Street and North Avenue at noon on Fridays, a fixture at the corner for years, protesting the Iraq war.
They regularly staged demonstrations, seeking justice and awareness for issues including the rights of the homeless population. These friends shared a vibrant energy and interest in changing the world, making it a better place one cause at a time.
This was before she and Laurel had children, and once they became moms, their sense of activism changed out of necessity and interest. Spending three nights in jail for a protest wasn’t feasible anymore with little ones, who were the new priority.
But they still kept their focus on bettering the community, forming child care cooperatives and participating in educational events for mothers-to-be or new moms to help them gain the knowledge to raise happy, healthy babies.
After several surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy, Connie spent almost a year in remission before her health declined rapidly.
It’s not fair. She’s only 37. She did all the right things. Never smoked a cigarette, ate organic food, led an active life, took her vitamins and was a yoga instructor.
But amazingly, a revolutionary who fought for so much justice for others never despaired about the injustice she was facing in her own, too-short life.
Reaching peace with the situation is something Connie helped others attain.
“There’s been tons of times where I’ve been upset and she’s been the one to calm me down and to reassure me that everything’s going to be OK,” Laurel said. “She did convince me that actually, we’re all going to be OK. Our family, we’re going to be OK. Her spirit is going to be OK. And she’s just not going to be here.”
Connie didn’t know the cancer had spread to her brain until she had a seizure during a Zolopht concert in Flagstaff, Arizona, in January. She had been in remission since March 2016, but in reality the cancer metastasized and she had 30 tumors in her brain, some as large as walnuts. A visit to the Huntsman Cancer Institute confirmed her only options left for treatment involved radiation of her entire brain, which would result in traumatic consequences and a drastic change in her quality of life. She decided to make the most of the time she had left and enter hospice.
On the drive back from the clinic, Connie was obsessed with researching nutrition information that would help her negotiate her decline. Laurel wanted to talk about moving her to their house, but Connie was completely engrossed in her research and wasn’t receptive.
She made a meme on her phone and texted it to Connie in the back seat of the car, so she would pay attention.
It said: #1 Cancer Diet, follow these 10 easy steps
1. Live with your besties
2. The 4 kids can have the master bedroom
3. You get the bedroom with the big sunny sliding glass doors
4. Everything will be easier
5. Especially for the boooyyys
6. Fresh garden veggies
7. Grandma Ruth (Laurel’s mom) is waiting impatiently for you to arrive
9. We love you
Connie read the text, burst into tears, and moved in with the Carpenters five weeks later.
A steady stream of visitors bearing flowers, food and other gifts have come to Connie’s bedside over the past few days. They’ve come to massage lotion into her feet, to sing her favorite songs, to tell her the difference she’s made in their lives, to see what they can’t believe with their own eyes — that Connie is dying and this is really happening.
Last week, the Carpenters’ backyard hummed with people, many from her community at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Grand Valley, who came to serenade her by the light of sparklers at her bedside window.
They planned to have a big party when she could still enjoy it, with the sparklers, which Connie requested. Her decline happened so fast — from going to yoga and grocery shopping one day to intense headaches and debilitating pain the next — that they didn’t know that her last best day had passed until it was already gone.
When the group lit the sparklers, Laurel turned Connie’s face to look out the door.
They sang, “Peace Like a River in My Soul,” and Connie murmured, “Like a river…” before she drifted away again, unconscious.
The vigil for the finale of Connie’s life is peaceful, marked with minutes of her consciousness where Laurel tells her who is in the room and offers to give her lip balm or a drink of water for comfort.
Laurel, a certified doula who has spent a career supporting new parents with the psychosocial aspects of birth, has helped plenty of times with the beginnings of life, and now she’s helping with the end. She’s graduating from nursing school in May, and expected her medical knowledge to somehow make it easier to cope with Connie’s dying process. But it’s not. While the science of it helps her rationalize what’s happening, it also hastens the absorption of the grief.
This process has been deeply painful, paralyzing but simultaneously energizing with the adrenaline of all the visitors and being there 24/7 at her bedside.
Having Connie and her two sons, ages 7 and 9, move in for the final stage of her life was just what the Carpenters knew they needed to do. Their friend, Jacob Richards, is also living there, and it’s kind of like it was years ago when they co-habitated at the communal house at 15th Street and Elm Avenue.
“This is what you do,” Laurel said. “As a doula, I coach families through births of their children, through the maze of information and the decision making and the joy and the fear and that’s what we’re doing here.”
The love surrounding Connie as she dies is overwhelming.
“Her entire life centered around other people,” Laurel said. “Advocating for people in poverty, advocating for the environment, advocating against violence. That’s what she did. And to see people advocate for her right now in flowers and in songs and in money is awesome.”
This outpouring is a small gift in the midst of tremendous loss, one that Connie was able to appreciate before she drifted into the space between this life and her imminent death.
“She never knew how much she is loved,” Laurel said. “She says she had no idea how many people were invested in her and that has been the gift that she’s gotten from cancer, to know what impact she’s made on people.”