A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Dying with grace and dignity – who is your Mary Gay Lake?

Editor’s note: This tribute appeared previously in KyForward and was used as a dedication to Steve Flairty’s book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4, published in 2015.

My first remembrance of Mary Gay Lake, from a distance, was the way she dressed—sharply and in classic style. Her attire fit smartly on her rather tall and well-postured frame, and she wore her dark brown hair in a neat, short and businesslike cut. Her movements were quick and graceful and her eyes spoke of keen intelligence. I could reasonably surmise, guardedly from the back pews of Versaille’s First Christian Church, that she was a person who did life intentionally and likely acted in a forthright manner in her personal dealings.

As I struck up an acquaintance with Mary Gay, I found that my intuition was mostly on target, and, with time, I learned much more about her, especially about her strikingly positive influence on others.

In the last three years, I watched her battle hard against the scourge of ovarian cancer, one of the most difficult types to fight. In the end, it took her life. Her efforts, by all accounts, were incredibly hard-fault. But borrowing a metaphor of the boxing world to illustrate, Mary Gay faced a brutal heavyweight with her lightweight body, put him on the ropes and gave him a whipping he’ll never forget.

Mary Gay Lake

Why was she able to do it? It’s simply because within that frail body of Mary Gay’s was a heart and soul that, along with the backing of faith, family, and friends…just wouldn’t back down.

I am fortunate I had the opportunity to record an interview with her, ten days before she passed, while she lay in hospice care at her home in Frankfort. Despite the circumstances, it was a two-hour period of exhilaration for me. Being with Mary Gay gave this grateful guy a profound sense of being in the right place and at the right time, and that he’d leave a better person for it. On that day, I was in true listening mode. I wanted to find in more detail what made Mary Gay tick because so many people in our mutual circles had effusively praised her.

I learned of her childhood spent in Midway, “a good childhood,” she said, where “we skated down the road with a key around our neck on a shoestring,” and in a day when “there was such freedom to do what you wanted to do.” She shared how she later moved to Versailles, “a stone’s throw from First Christian, where I got baptized,” and how, without a college degree, she worked in adult services with the state of Kentucky, doing nursing home placement and, later, nursing home regulation compliance. “I had a knack for working with elderly people,” she said with a sense of pride.
To my surprise in our time together, she shared a chilling story from her stint as a spousal abuse investigator, when an accused abuser husband brandished a gun at her and ordered her out of his house or be shot. I was struck by her compassion, even in those moments, for the safety of the abuser’s spouse.

She recalled the initial diagnosis of the disease that would kill her while at the Markey Cancer Center, Lexington. The news immediately, and understandably, had created another chilling effect on her.

“You feel like you’ve been slammed up against a mountain,” she said, “blind-sided like you have never been before.” She spent a short time bemoaning the news, even experiencing a “short pity party,” she admitted. But soon a “friend of a friend” and military veteran named Jerry, who happened to be in the room at the time, put his intuitive sense of Mary Gay’s plight into proactive gear. He leaned down toward her bedside, offering challenging words, but ones that she would grow to embrace.

What Mary Gay told me he said was something like this. “I know where you are right now, and it’s not a place where you should be. God’s not ready for you yet. Now…you can be this way, and you can even stay this way. But…do you want to go deeper into the depths of hell, or do you want to pull your butt up and realize that the Good Lord isn’t going to take you until he is good and ready?”

Jerry, who had previously dealt with his own hardship challenges, continued to focus on the fact that Mary Gay would not be alone as she moved ahead, that family and friends would be there in spades, and that she needed to get back to a positive mind-set. What she heard him say connected with what she learned from her experiences with a support group called Al-Anon, one she joined years ago to seek help in dealing with her family connection to alcoholism.
Now, she was ready to fight.

“I went back to my Al-Anon mode,” she said. “And that’s the fact that you have a choice. The minute I changed my attitude, I knew I wasn’t going to go back. I knew right where Jerry was coming from.”

The prediction she’d receive loving support quickly came true, too. “The next day, people started ‘flooding in’ to see me,” she said. “I started looking at everybody, and I said ‘Yeah, silly girl. Where was your head?’”

Her forward steps in facing the heavyweight enemy gained momentum from the hundreds of hours spent in Al-Anon discussions, and she fully applied the “higher power” component of Al-Anon, which was, for Mary Gay, her Christian faith.

One of the first and most difficult choices she had to make, in consultation with her physician, was to change her diet. It would need to be rather dramatic, she found, but she decided and then demonstrated she was willing and able to do so. “I used to be the ‘Queen of Fast Foods,’” she noted with a twinkle in her eyes, and my kitchen was pretty much irrelevant for me.” But no more. Her new regimen would incur staying away from sweets and processed food, among other items, and she did so as she continually educated herself on the matter. Additionally, she began to abide by the mantra that one should, in collaboration with one’s doctor, take control of your own health decisions and that might mean asking the doctor lots of questions. “It’s their job,” she told me. “They work for you!”

Mary Gay also understood the need to surround oneself with positivity. She told me she wanted to encourage people “to get toxic people out of your life. Those people don’t need to be around you,” she said. Rather, her advice was to seek encouragement from caring friends and family members individually, and also in support groups. Doing her time of illness, her brother, Randy, traveled from his home in Tennessee to Frankfort every week to see her. She mentioned at our meeting that “He texts me every morning, every night. As we have gotten older, we have become much closer, and that is a Godsend.” She was also elated that she recently became a good friend of her ex-husband, once thought unlikely. And, she talked profusely of the love she had for her son Eric, and a great support.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion for the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state and still enjoys doing those one-dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Mary Gay saw support groups as crucial for anyone in navigating the emotionally draining nature of the cancer fight. “Groups are pretty easy to find,” she noted, “and we can learn much from those who have similar experiences.” Besides her local Al-Anon group based in Frankfort, where she lived, Mary Gay’s church friends at First Christian, as well as many others, were appreciated for their gestures of kindness. Continually and at a moment’s notice, errands were run, phone calls or texts of encouragement were sent, prayers were offered and volunteers stayed overnight with her. It’s clear the love shared was simply returning that given so generously by Mary Gay.

“There are no words to describe. There are so many people in the church that I love dearly,” she said in the interview when asked specifically about First Christian. Then, with her typical lightness, she said: “I’m gonna be watching you all!”

A few evenings after the interview with Mary Gay, I met with a sizeable gathering of church members who desired to share favorite stories or comments about their friend. Some of the conversation was gut-wrenching because of the impending loss, some anecdotes were side-splittingly funny, and all were engaging, telling of a remarkable person who loved people and was bound by her good nature to do right by them.

Several mentioned working along with her in church kitchen outreach programs as she created a culture of laughing while banging pots and pans together, dancing, and seeing her almost obsessively, one said, “making sure the tables were set in just the right way, because she cared for the visitors.”

Cathy Noel, a longtime friend, remarked on that evening: “She teaches me the things that everybody has always known their whole lives…living each day as if it’s their last. She’s always telling others that she loves them.” Then, with only a touch of playfulness, Cathy said: “I want to be like her when I grow up.”

For Pattie Carter, Mary Gay’s positive attitude, she said, “has inspired me religiously “ and Peggy Cains noted that she relied much on her friend for medical information regarding her own bout with cancer. Gertrude McGurk, Mary Gay’s former husband’s mother, shared with joy about the fun Mary Gay and she had during those special appointments together playing a table game called “Yahtzee.”

Recently, I was one of the folks at First Christian who watched a strong-willed but weak-bodied woman stand with steel resolve in front of the congregation while serving as an elder during Holy Communion. Again watching from a back pew, my eyes moistened. The scene had its own commanding presence, almost surreal. Though not a superstitious kind of person, on that Sunday morning worship service I sensed a pronounced aura about this woman, facilitated by having a likeness to what Kentucky author James Lane Allen once described as “eyes that look of peace which is never seen but in those of petted animals.” Mary Gay, only recently (and gratefully) appointed an elder, triumphantly and joyously served her God in that moment. She served a few more times in succeeding weeks until she became too physically weak to stand on her own, but in her acts of service, she left an imprint on me that will last as long as I live. She is the best of what humanity has to offer.

Cathy Noel, asked by Mary Gay to stand behind her and steady her at the ritual, was touched by the opportunity to support one she so deeply loves, and gave this heartfelt comment: “Nobody has asked me to do a more honorable thing in my life. Mary Gay was someone who truly ‘walked the talk’ in her Christian life.”

I watched her as she was dying and, along with an uncountable number of admirers, marveled at her faith and courage, even in the last weeks and days. She challenged all of us and set the bar high. But being the truly remarkable person she was, Mary Gay Lake’s greatest gift was not the part about dying. It was, however, the way she lived–and we’ll take that example with us daily.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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