As 62-year-old Jack O’Ryan made the final turns approaching the old Hickey acreage in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the landscape poured into the shapes set permanently in his memory. The road and the trees. The big hill that loomed like a backdrop at the rear of the property. And the creek where the cows chased him, and he chased the chickens, and he whiled away the hours with his childhood friend Buddy – wary of the water moccasins but without a single worry more.
“Seeing all that makes everything feel just right,” said O’Ryan, a Sacramento resident who was diagnosed with terminal cancer last September and has been under the care of UC Davis Hospice since December.
Shortly after meeting O’Ryan, hospice social worker Rebeckah Long learned that one of the most important things to him at the end of his life was to see his family in Muskogee, where he spent every summer break and winter holiday until he was 16 with his grandparents on the family’s 100-acre farm ranch.
Long immediately sprang into action, submitting an application to Dream Foundation, the only national nonprofit that “serves terminally-ill adults and their families by providing end-of-life Dreams that offer inspiration, comfort, and closure.”
Long has been with UC Davis Hospice for 15 years and partnered with Dream Foundation on fulfilling a wide range of Dreams for patients. She worked with Dream Coordinator Jordan Williams to arrange O’Ryan’s trip to Oklahoma.
“It is always special to me when the people I serve invite me into their lives during such a trying and difficult time, and I feel privileged to bear witness to their love, fears, beauty, and heartbreak,” Long said. “It has been a pleasure and an honor to help Jack fulfill his Dream.”
Staying in Muskogee from March 26–29 with his wife Michellene and sister Karen, O’Ryan described the thoughtful planning by Long and Dream Foundation as “magical.” He was grateful, for example, that they were able to stay in a rental house directly across the street from his aunt and uncle, Helen and Mack Hickey.
“You can die bitter, you can die angry, you can die with all the questions of ‘Why me?’ and all of that – but the fact is, you’re going to die…so why not take those questions and those feelings and instead fill those voids with love and with appreciation and with all that you do have?” –Jack O’Ryan
“One of our favorite dishes, which I never get to have, is milk gravy and biscuits,” O’Ryan said. “And for two mornings my aunt would bring over milk gravy and biscuits – bringing back memories of my grandparents.”
In addition to spending that Saturday with his childhood friends who drove up from Texas, O’Ryan said another highlight was introducing Michellene, his wife of 14 years, to his beloved Aunt Helen and Uncle Mack – who filled his often-tumultuous childhood with warmth, togetherness, and stability.
“Michellene was able to meet them and fall in love with them – that’s really what warmed my heart: they fell in love with each other,” he said. “My aunt and my wife just got along like they’d known each other forever.”
And, just as importantly, O’Ryan was able to finally share a part of his life and his identity with Michellene. The last time he was in Oklahoma, more than a decade ago, his wife had not been able to accompany him.
“Living here in California, it’s a different lifestyle than in the Midwest, so she was only able to see a little piece of what makes Jack, Jack,” O’Ryan explained. “This filled in the gaps of why simplicity – of just being you in the country, and having a simple breakfast, and laughing about simple silly things – makes me who I am.”
Remembering and celebrating those little joys are just some of the lessons O’Ryan has been sharing on a Facebook group he started, “Jack O’Ryan’s Going Home Journal,” where he offers his views on dying. By speaking openly of death, he has provided comfort to members of that online community – and the perspective to embrace the final stage of their life journey. He hopes the group continues to give people peace far into the future, even after his passing.
“There’s this saying that I have: You can either grow old and bitter, or you can grow old and graceful – it’s your own mindset what you want to do,” O’Ryan said. “So when this [diagnosis] happened, I just tweaked it a little bit: you can die bitter, you can die angry, you can die with all the questions of ‘Why me?’ and all of that – but the fact is, you’re going to die…so why not take those questions and those feelings and instead fill those voids with love and with appreciation and with all that you do have? Fill your last days, your last moments, with gratitude and love.”
Those March days in Muskogee were certainly filled with great care and concern from loved ones, and O’Ryan was especially glad to visit the gravesite where his grandparents are buried, and where Michellene will return to inter O’Ryan’s ashes.
That trip will now, at last, be like going home for her – just as it had been for O’Ryan, all through the most cherished years of his boyhood.
“Remembering when you were a kid, anticipating seeing Grandma and Grandpa’s house and you turn the corner, you look for those certain signs that ‘We’re home, we’re home, we’re home,’” he said, “where everything is right, and there are no cares, no worries…you’re home, you’re safe, and all is right with the world.”