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Marsha Dean Farris


Drafting of these memories was undertaken as a means for the Farris and Penix families to share our memories of Marsha and to remember her as a loyal friend, adored family member, faithful wife and loving mother. I realize that Marsha touched the lives of each of us in a unique way, and it would be impossible for me to summarize the diverse impact that she had on each of us. Instead, I will focus on how she entered my live and enriched it in the relatively short time that I was permitted to know and love her.

The first time that I saw Marsha, my wife, Carolyn, and I were working in the yard at our Lake Anna house. Our son Joel had bought her by to introduce her to us. As Joel approached Carolyn and me to start his introductions, Marsha stood back a little way and let us approach her to initiate personal contact. At the time, I was uncertain as to whether she was shy, reserved, or unsure of herself. It was only later, after I had come to know her, that I realized that she was neither shy, reserved or unsure. However, I felt that I eventually came to understand her presentation of herself. In essence, it was, "Here I am; what you see is what you get." From that first introduction to the end, she was always straightforward, totally honest and without pretense. In addition, she was very open, readily approachable and always ready to help her many friends and acquaintances—regardless of whether she had known them for a lifetime or had only met them a few minutes before.

Marsha was reared near Asheville and, until the time of her death, was strongly connected spiritually and emotionally to that area and her family. After graduating from Nursing School in North Carolina, Marsha moved to the Washington area and worked in the labor and delivery departments at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington and the Hospital Center in the District. She concurrently enrolled in the University of Maryland in Baltimore and graduated with honors. She invited Carolyn and me to attend her graduation, enabling us to meet her parents, Marshall and Deanna Penix, and to begin to gain an appreciation for her grit and determination to excel.

Although she had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 19 and endured constant pain and discomfort, Marsha not only worked long demanding hours at the hospital but also was very active in skiing and other outdoors activities. She became a ski patroller, and her interest in skiing and traveling eventually lead her to, perhaps, the most important crossroad of her life. She wanted to go to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to ski and approached some of her friends to obtain information that might facilitate her trip. One of her friends remembered someone that had spent considerable time in Jackson Hole and suggested that she contact that person. That person was Joel Farris, and he was not only willing to share his knowledge and love of Jackson Hole but, eventually, asked Marsha to share his dreams and his life. Joel proposed over a carefully planned and executed picnic along the banks of the Potomac near the Mt. Vernon parkway.

After Marsha and Joel became engaged, she came to me and told me that ever since she was a little girl growing up in Ashville that she had dreamed of having a Student Prince type storybook wedding at the Biltmore Estate. She had determined that she could have her wedding and reception at the beautiful estate, but that the Biltmore management no longer allowed use of horse drawn carriages in the wedding program. Unwilling to give up any part of her dream, she asked me to assist her to contact the Biltmore management and seek special permission to have a horse and carriage. I drafted a letter to the President of the Biltmore; and Marsha was able, with the help of some local friends, to have the horse and carriage as she had dreamed. Some of you here, today, were able to attend and can attest to the joy and pleasure that we experienced on that beautiful day and evening in late May 1995.

Shortly after the wedding, Marsha came to Carolyn and me and asked if she could call us Mom and Dad. This was her way of expressing her intention to be an integral part of our family. Subsequently, we realized that she was quickly extending and strengthening the relationships that our family had with relatives, friends and neighbors. Everyone soon realized that they wanted Marsha with them-whether enjoying a day of skiing, remodeling a kitchen, or handling some difficult situation. She was invariably courageous, direct and loyal. She was particularly effective in negotiating and, otherwise, dealing with difficult situations. Although she could be very direct in insisting that someone honor their responsibilities, she would do so in a manner that resulted in a new or stronger friendship rather than creating an adversary. Many of Marsha's friends relish to recall that she was the only one they knew that could return a used commode, obtain a full refund, and simultaneously develop a friendly relationship with the store manager.

It is well known that when Marsha set her mind to mastering a new task, ranging from water skiing to home improvement, she set the bar high and had a fast learning curve. Our family discovered this early in her marriage to Joel. Soon, she decided it was time to learn to cook, and to Marsha, that didn't mean just macaroni and cheese – it meant entire complex, delicious meals. There were some bumps on that road that we can smile at today. In one of her earlier experiments in preparing a Farris family meal, the dish called for eggplant. After shopping and following the recipe carefully, she could not figure out why her finished dish did not match with the picture in the cookbook. Despite her zeal to prepare a perfect newlywed meal, her undoing resulted from her purchase of artichokes rather than the eggplant called for in the recipe!!

While helping hundreds of mothers to deliver their babies, Marsha concurrently dreamed of rearing her own children. Fortunately, Joel shared this goal; and Marsha was soon pregnant. Tragically, their daughter Kaila was stillborn. Within months, Marsha was again pregnant; and a son, proudly named Jackson Marshall, was born nine weeks premature. At first, the doctors were not sure what would be the consequences of his premature birth, but Jackson quickly displayed Marsha's grit and determination and grew and matured in a healthy manner. Although Jackson was precious to Marsha, she possessed a great capacity to not only nurture him but to also share him with others. As a consequence, Jackson's birth brought considerable joy to the Farris and Penix families. However, unknown at the time, Marsha's pregnancy with either Jackson or Kaila probably initiated the development of the rare gestational cancer that lead eventually to her untimely death. Although her fight against the cancer was long and extremely difficult, it never defeated her spirit. She lived every day to the fullest, and those whom she encountered had to be highly discerning to detect that she was experiencing such suffering. Some of you may have telephoned her in the relative recent past and heard her telephone message. It went somewhat as follows: "It's a beautiful day; and OF Course, we are outside enjoying it. Leave a message and we will call you as soon as possible."

Regardless of what was being done, Marsha always wanted to be involved in a hands-on manner. This was true when the activity involved sawing through a wall to reposition a bathroom door, as well as when the activity involved planning and hosting a combination birthday/New Years Eve party for numerous children and their parents. Once when I was installing a new stair railing in the entrance way to my home, she offered to get her hammer and help me distress the railing so that it would match the other parts of the steps. This concerned me somewhat because even though I will admit that the steps showed a few signs of many years of child rearing, I was not intentionally trying to achieve a distressed look.

Marsha's approach to establishment of relationships is illustrated in a story recently related to me. My comprehension of the facts may not be totally accurate, but is adequate to show how she interacted not only with old friends but, also, with individuals that she had just met. Marsha was outside her home when she encountered a lady that had just recently moved into a house down the street. The lady indicated that she was remodeling her recently acquired house so Marsha invited the lady inside her home to show her how she was currently involved in remodeling her kitchen. When the lady indicated that she needed to obtain some kitchen cabinets, Marsha stated that she knew another neighbor that was disposing of cabinets. Marsha offered to accompany her new neighbor and assist in obtaining the cabinets. After the cabinets were obtained and installed, the lady reported that she had, also, decided to paint her kitchen the same bold red that Marsha used.

Despite her illnesses, Marsha never complained. She installed special supports in her ski boots to alleviate pain from her arthritis and hit the slopes to experience the pleasure of challenging runs, teaching skiing to younger skiers, and rendering assistance to injured skiers. She managed to give the impression of being totally unfazed by her long period of surgeries and chemotherapy. She often drove herself to and from Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore to receive heavy duty chemotherapy treatments. Since I have a strong aversion to hospitals, I was somewhat apprehensive when Marsha asked me to drive her to Johns Hopkins for one set of treatments. However, my apprehensions were quickly dispelled when she came bouncing out of her house with her colorfully packaged lunch and reading materials. She immediately suggested that we stop on the way and purchase coffee and Krispy Creme doughnuts. When she entered the hospital, she happily dispensed doughnuts-starting with the guards at the door.

One of my favorite songs is "Laura's Theme". I especially like and have on several occasions been inspired by the song's message that one should not despair even during the coldest and harshest winter because spring always comes and brings new life and lifts spirits. Under the circumstances of Marsha's death, I could easily conclude that for me this spring has not delivered the promised uplifting; rather, the despair of winter has continued. However, I know that Marsha would not want me to despair and fail to experience the joy of life that seems to be rejuvenated each spring. Accordingly, I am looking forward to planting a rosebud tree at her gravesite so that its blossoms each spring will be a recurring reminder of her spirit and optimism.

As stated in her obituary in the Washington Post, Marsha's desire was that her friends and relatives would honor her death by spending a day with their families. I certainly hope that as many of you as possible will observe her wish and go home tonight with a renewed commitment to honoring and enjoying your family relationships. However, several people have approached me inquiring as to what else might they do to honor Marsha's memory. I have, therefore, decided to establish a Jackson Farris Educational Fund to permit those who wish to do so to contribute funds to be invested and preserved to finance payment of a part of Jackson's college expenses.

The number of people who have assisted, and the extent of their contributions, during Marsha's illness are beyond my personal awareness and ability to enumerate. I would like to be able to take the time to individually thank each and every one of you, but obviously cannot. However, I feel compelled to recognize the dedication and loyalty shown by Deanna and Marshall Penix and Lisa Farris. Over a period of years, Deanna and Marshall reacted to every medical crisis by immediately interrupting their lives, driving for eight to ten hours to be with Marsha, and staying by her side to the end of the crisis. Approximately six months ago, Lisa quit her job and left her home in Boise, Idaho to return to Alexandria and assist Marsha. In addition to Joel, these are the people who most consistently and intimately assisted Marsha in her final fight against her cancer. There is no way that I, or anyone else, can adequately thank these people for their unselfish efforts.

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