Michelle Heller and Nancy McCranie

I met my friend, Michelle, almost two years ago shortly after she had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Michelle’s childhood was scarred with unreliable, abusive adults and, not surprisingly, the early part of her own adulthood was riddled with addiction and a repetition of old patterns that didn’t serve her well. But she persevered and eventually found her way into recovery and into a life-giving spiritual community. When we met, she was living independently in her own place. Although she was estranged from much of her family, she had a circle of wonderful friends that filled her life with joy. She made ends meet by doing odd jobs and home repairs for people. She loved her life.

One day a few months ago, she called to tell me that her cancer had progressed to the point that she didn’t think she could live alone anymore. She needed help and she thought it was time for hospice. Moving out of her home was an understandably tough decision, but one that she realized had to be made. With the help of a few good friends, she found a spot at a nursing facility in south Austin called Monte Siesta. Michelle gave up a lot: her home, her car, her income, her privacy, and her independence in order to get the care she needs. It means that she is reliant on others for meals, transportation and for dispensing her pain medication and she is surrounded mostly by people much older and less capable than she is all day every day. It’s a situation in which few of us would thrive.

One day recently we were sitting together in her small room that she has managed to make incredibly warm and homey. Michelle was feeling a little wistful as she contemplated her life. She told me that she wished she could have gone to seminary so that she could have been a minister, serving people who needed her.

As I sat there listening, something kept occurring to me. “Michelle,” I said, “you know your room is kind of like a room in a monastery. Sometimes they are called ‘cells.’ You have a bed, a dresser, a chair, and a small closet.”

“You mean like where monks live and pray?” she asked.

“Yes, exactly!” I responded. “What if this is your monastery and your ministry?”

I could see I had her attention and so I continued, “I think there are so many lonely people right outside your door that a seminary degree would be a distraction at this point.”

“Huh,” she said, “I never thought of it that way.”

The next time I stopped for a visit, on the outside of her door was a hand-lettered poster board sign that read: Monastery of Monte Siesta.

Residents and staff stop all the time and ask her about her sign.

She explains that she sees her role as one of prayer, compassion, and service for those around her. Walking down the hallways, she speaks to everyone. She prays with those who ask for prayer. She treats each person with kindness and respect.

In a transformational moment, Michelle chose the path of conscious love right where she was: in less than ideal circumstances, with limited resources, and a terminal diagnosis. Much more than just making the most of a difficult situation, she has chosen to connect to the flow of divine love. It’s remarkable to see the difference it has made for her and the difference she is making for others.

She would tell you that it’s not an easy path. And it won’t keep her from dying. But it is the path that enables her to fully live.




Nancy McCranie
Director of Bereavement and Volunteer Services