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Terminal cancer can’t shake Supreme Court Justice’s spirit

Mary Fairhurst, a Washington state Supreme Court Justice with deep Spokane roots, is living with terminal colon cancer. It could take her life in six months or a year – or in 10 years and beyond. She’s hoping for the 10-plus plan.

Fairhurst hasn’t missed any courtroom work because of her cancer treatments (two rounds of chemo and radiation). Her cancer was first diagnosed in December 2008 and spread to her right lung in March 2010.

In a recent Wise Words interview, done by phone from her Olympia home, Fairhurst, 54, talked about her parents’ legacy, her deep faith and her crush on the Seattle Mariners mascot.

• My mom died in 1999 of breast cancer that had metastasized throughout her body. As one of the Hospice of Spokane founders, as well as the first lay chaplain at Sacred Heart Medical Center, my mom was around a lot of death and dying. It’s not something we view as “bad.” It’s a process we go through. We have such strong faith that we are children of God and that we are here for a reason and when we’re done, we get to go home to God.

• When my dad died two years ago, all the children and some of the grandchildren were with him. At the end, he gave a huge smile, opened his eyes clear as a bell, tilted his head and was clearly seeing things in the corner of the ceiling we couldn’t see. Because of those experiences, and being with both my grandmothers when they died, I’m not afraid to die. But I’m doing everything I can to live.

• My mom and dad taught us that all people are deserving of respect. You treat people as if they were what they ought to be. And the true measure of a person is not in how he treats someone who can promote him or control his destiny, but in how he treats someone who can’t.

We have a famous story that involves my sister Duby, the youngest. It was a snowy night in Spokane in 1982 and my mom and sister saw this homeless woman dragging a metal cart behind her. She had bare hands. My mom said to Duby: “Take off your gloves.” They were white, cable-knit mittens she had just gotten for Christmas. Duby said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Mom said, “No, if you have the opportunity to help someone you should do it. I can get you new gloves, but I don’t know if I’ll ever see this woman again.”

My dad had homeless guys he took care of. He’d take them to Denny’s. He would know their stories, their dogs. Those were the examples we grew up with.

• Why am I so open about the cancer? I want a lot of people praying for me.

• I haven’t gotten mad. I sometimes get sad when all the family is together, and I’m looking at my nieces and nephews and should I not get a miracle and not live to a ripe old age, I get a little melancholy thinking I won’t be at their weddings or see their children and grandchildren.

I don’t want to waste any of my time being mad or sad. Others are sad. I tell them: “Wait and be sad if I go. Don’t waste any time being sad now. I’m still here. Let’s be here. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”

• I love my job. People ask: “Don’t you want to stay home?” At some point, I might be ill enough that I have to stay home. But now I’m not. If I were to stay home now, I’d have hours of the day to think “I have cancer, I’m dying.” When I go to work, I’m not thinking about that because I am focused on the cases or preparing the cases or writing the opinions. It gives your mind a break. Working makes you feel normal.

• My siblings were trying to think of something special to do for my birthday. So on July 30, I threw out the pitch at the Mariners game. I’m a big Mariners fan. I love the moose. I always joke at the games, “There’s my boyfriend the moose.”

Over 700 people bought tickets for our section. We had on royal blue T-shirts with white writing that said “Miracles” and below it “Believe.”

 Someone said, “Are you a church from Bellevue?” They thought it said “Bellevue miracles.” Someone thought it was for the Mariners because they were having a tough season.

People flew in from Spokane, Virginia, California, Oregon, Alaska, South Dakota, D.C. I felt so loved. My dental office friends came. My car repair guy came. The dental office made this big sign that said, “We love you Mary” that you could see from the field. People started singing “Happy Birthday”; 700 people! The game stopped. They couldn’t figure out what was going on.

  • Regrets? When I was 20 and in Florence (Italy), I was out of money and didn’t go to Russia, and so I always wished I’d gone. I have all these trips I’d like to go on. And if I have more time, I’ll start traveling more. If I don’t, I just want to be with my friends and family and sit in my beautiful home and love the people I love.

• I’m operating even more on the do-it-now principle. If I think of someone, I call them.

• My mom was 63 when she died. I would like to beat her. My dad was almost 81 when he died. I’d be happy to beat him. My Nana Fairhurst was 94. I could go that long. My dad’s grandmother was 106. Some people go early and some people go late. I’m willing to stay for the long run. I’d like to be like (retired Supreme Court justice) Gerry Alexander and shown the door at 75.

• In 10 years, there might be new cures, new treatments. Lots could change. I don’t limit myself by thinking “I only have 10 years.” I have today. Another day, hooray.

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