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Breadth of Life

Photo Story by George Sakkestad

It's a simple story.

One lives, one thrives, one dies. End to beginning, a Möbius strip of existence. A wondrous party thrown just for you, where the music is turned on, then off till the next show starts. This then is the story, told in images and song, of the last days of a single orbit of the here and the after by an extraordinary woman and her three daughters: LeAna Olson, Karena Christman and Aikasha Figliola-Kaderli.

Her full name was Elizabeth Ann Mary Theresa Helena Reitter Figliola. But she came across the word "breadth" one day and thumbed through the dictionary in search of its meaning. Two years later, she legally changed her name, and Betty Breadth emerged out of that cocoon of born, christened and married monikers.

The Oxford American Dictionary offers up only a two-word definition for Betty's adopted last name: "width, broadness.'' But that pretty well described how Betty Breadth decided to live ... and die.

We met Capitola resident Betty Breadth in the spring of 1998, when we worked on a photo essay about spirited older women. Betty also fit that description but had a bigger story she wanted to tell. She had just learned she had inoperable cancer and was given less than six months to live.

Betty Breadth invited us into her and her family's world to document what became 11 months of remarkable beauty and grief, grace and anguish, honesty and joy. She died at the age of 69 on March 22, 1999.

When death came aknockin', Betty decided to throw open the door and greet the Grim Reaper head on. There were parties to be planned, fundraisers to throw and a funeral to organize. Betty may be the only person ever who wrote thank-you cards in advance (addressed and stamped) to be sent to all who would eventually send sympathy cards upon her death. Betty even scheduled her own Christmas at Thanksgiving, in case she didn't make it.

Where others see a terrifying void--the Great Unknown, the Grand Perhaps--Betty Breadth sensed an opportunity to die as she lived: dancing to the music.


Betty Breadth

Betty's first choice was assisted dying with the help of Dr. Kevorkian. She was adamant about being in control of her death. Gradually, she learned to accept the idea of dying at home with the support of nurses like Richard Smith (above) of Hospice Caring Project.


Betty Breadth

Nonprofit organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the Wo/Man's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, Meals on Wheels, LiftLine and the Glaucoma Foundation benefited from various fundraisers that Betty organized in her final months. Here, she gets a hug from friend Maria Vasquez at the fundraising dinner for Hospice Caring Project.


Betty Breadth

'Sometimes my family kills me with kindness. I get irritated when they hover and dote too much. They're entitled to, but it makes me nervous. I need space.' --Betty Breadth


Betty Breadth

It is late October, and Betty starts planning and organizing her death with almost manic energy. The house is crammed with holiday decorations and gifts for her Thanksgiving/Christmas party. She outlines where the wake table will be and what refreshments will be served. Stacks of binders hold pages of inspirational sayings and thoughts to be given away to 200 acquaintances before she dies.


Betty Breadth

Betty is starting to move more slowly, and her stomach is so bloated. She notes that she can now open the blinds. They've been closed for years because the bright light hurts her eyes, which have been damaged by glaucoma. But the medical marijuana is helping the eye disease. 'I've even got a water pipe,' she laughs.


Betty Breadth

'The pain is in the back, and when it's in the high range, then it affects my stomach and I get sick. I'm going down, I know that. It's OK, I just want to last until I'm done with my Christmas deliveries and Thanksgiving celebration. If I can handle my own death at home, I will. I've always talked about not wanting to linger. I'm not afraid of dying--I'm kind of looking forward to it. The curiosity is getting to me. I feel comfortable with my life as I've lived it. I'm finished.' --Betty Breadth


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From the October 27-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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