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‘The culmination of our whole life’

With their carefree, nomadic years behind them, senior couple finds peace, isolation in Ferry County

REPUBLIC, Wash. – His hands match the bark on the homestead apple tree. Old. Rugged. Dying, yet so alive.

Bob Faller touches the tree like a lover, caressing and hopeful. He beams, like he’s plugged into the very nature he relies on to guide his life. Now that cancer has invaded him like blight, he’s relying on nature to guide his death.

A nails-tough individualist, living off the grid as much as possible – even when facing terminal illness – Faller keeps the medical system at bay, not with his bare hands, but with perseverance, alternative medicine and yoga.

He embodies the stereotype, built on a defiant mix of old hippies, rednecks, ranchers, miners, outdoor adventurers and retirees who live in remote Ferry County.

Aging here, in the poorest and one of the more sparsely populated counties in the state, is challenging. Residents frequently must travel long distances on winding roads for anything but the most basic health care.

But what the area lacks in medical services and big-town accouterments it makes up for in rural resilience.

 “Look at this,” said Faller, stretching to reach a young, vibrant limb growing from the massive old stump. “This one piece of bark is giving life to all these branches. Talk about tenacity.”

Tenacity easily describes Faller, 79, who lives on 12 acres between two steep hills that keep the valley just west of Curlew Lake cool in the summer and dark and isolated in the winter.

For Faller and his wife of 58 years, Jane, maintaining rural acreage doesn’t have the ease of a retirement community. They grow their own food, using greenhouses they built to extend the growing season. They raise chickens and burn wood gathered from their property. Their pantry is full of home-canned beans, apricots, tomato sauce and chicken stock. For the most part, they live off the land, like they’ve been doing since they met in 1957 while working in Macy’s toy department in New York City. The Fallers – and their five children – wandered from adventure to adventure, often landing where their Volkswagen bus died, stranding them, the dog and the Siamese cat. One of the family’s greatest tales is homesteading in northern British Columbia, living in a windowless cabin filled with sparrows and cooking over an open fire and drinking from the river.

Bob Faller occasionally gave in to society’s expectations, usually when he was broke, and landed “real” drafting jobs, even working at Hewlett-Packard. But eventually his free spirit would take flight and the family would wander while Faller picked up odd jobs or indulged a childhood fantasy, such as cowboying in California.

“This is the culmination of our whole life,” Faller said, while on one of his two daily walks through their property. He gives Jane, 77, a hand as they climb a steep, rocky slope where gnarled tree roots act like steps. No matter the weather, even when ice makes the trails treacherous for old bones, the Fallers walk in nature. It’s their religion.

Moving to town isn’t an option. It would, in fact, be an insult to a lifetime spent bucking conformity and the expectation of a dignified death. Besides, Faller believes he must stay connected to nature, immersing his hands in the warm garden soil and walking along the creek. His faith culminates in nature, not modern medicine, and he believes his body must adapt. On bad days, he describes doctors as boogeymen with horns – his gravelly, harsh New York accent and cuss words adding to the intensity.

In Ferry County by choice

When Faller found a lump on the right side of his throat in April 2014, leading to six weeks of radiation treatment for throat cancer, the Fallers’ friends rallied. They cut and stacked winter wood, delivered food. One buddy brought a paper bag full of homegrown marijuana; another ice cream. It’s standard procedure in a small community when one of its members needs help.

The Fallers are fiercely independent like most of the hardy individuals in this northeast corner of the state where Colville is the closest town with a Wal-Mart and Spokane is considered the big city. The Fallers returned to Ferry County eight years ago after living on the West Side. They couldn’t stand the damp, gray days, so they returned to the dry pine woods.

Since retiring at 62, Bob has built five homes with Jane. On good days, he says he has one more house project left in him. Jane Faller slaps her forehead and rolls her eyes at her dreamer of a husband.

Ferry County, the fourth-smallest in Washington, has just 7,646 residents – 3.4 people per square mile.

It’s the poorest county in the state, with per-capita personal income of $27,948 in 2012, about $18,000 less than the state average. It also has a large population of people 65 or older, accounting for 21.4 percent of the population.

These demographics are largely why the county has a solid social services network and the residents care for each other, even if they don’t agree on hot-button issues such as allowing all-terrain vehicles to run on local roads to boost tourism.

Nobody accidently ends up in Republic, where the only access is over mountain passes in the Colville National Forest, across an international border with Canada, or on a winding road through the Colville Indian Reservation that makes up the bottom half of the county and involves crossing the Columbia River on the Keller Ferry.

A second lump, and big decisions

A U.S. Army veteran, Faller received cancer treatments through the Veterans Affairs health system. That meant six weeks in Spokane, commuting home on weekends three hours each way.

Rural Resources Community Action, a nonprofit that helps low-income people, especially seniors, provided gas vouchers.

A year later, Faller’s skin remains burned, his throat raw and his voice gravelly.

During an afternoon interview, Faller scratches his arms nonchalantly. Soon, he’s scratching his back and rubbing his throat. By supper, he’s in a dither, asking his wife to rub creams on his back, chest and arms. The skin is red, inflamed. Many nights he awakes in a crazed panic with uncontrollable itching. His thyroid is fried and he has stomach problems. A headache looms every day. He’s not sure the radiation was worth it, especially since another grape-size lump has appeared, this time on the left side of his throat. He’s unsure if it’s more cancer.

The VA doctors recently told him his cancer is incurable, inoperable. He feels like he was sent home to die.

As he waited for a second opinion and perhaps a scan to determine if the new lump was cancerous, Faller immersed himself in readings about human connection with nature and Earth. He meditated, which he said helps overcome his “inability to understand the stupid world.” The Fallers are faithful yoga students. A skilled woodworker, Faller showed off barn boards from a Minnesota dairy farm where the family spent time on two occasions. He plans to fashion them into a box to store his ashes. Standing in the wood shop, Bob and Jane joke about where to spread his ashes, perhaps in wildernesses he hasn’t yet explored. The good nature of the conversation soon turns for Jane. She doesn’t want to talk anymore. She goes outside to check the chickens.

Taking charge, but expressing fear

A few days later, Faller woke up with a new plan, a new energy. He canceled his appointment at the VA, basically telling the government he didn’t need its medicine. He is healing himself with help from Jane. The first step is ridding his diet of sugar, which he believes is feeding his cancer. He rambles about doctors sending him home with cases of Ensure, which contains 18 grams of sugar per serving. He put six cans a day through his feeding tube.

“I’m in charge of 100 percent of my own health,” Faller said in a tone full of hope. “I feel empowered. We’re going vegan. It sucks. I really don’t like it. I’m going to have to cut a lot of butter out.”

Faller made an appointment with a Colville naturopath. He’s hopeful, but doubt seeps in. A few minutes after talking about self-healing, he’s explaining the labeling on the breaker box in the house and says he’s teaching Jane how to shut off the water.

Jane shook her head and looked away. Her blue eyes – normally full of sparkles – teared and became distant.

“It scares the living shit out of me to leave her alone,” Faller said. “Can she live here alone?”

Jane, in her mild tone, assured her agitated husband she will be OK. She may not like the constant talk of death, but she knows it’s a reality.

“It’s good,” she said with a big, cheery smile. “I need to know these things.”

After a couple of visits with the naturopath, Faller’s optimism falters. He’s not taking more pills, no matter who prescribes them. But a few weeks later, the couple spent two days with a Native American medicine man, who placed his hands on Faller and chanted. Bob felt energized. The exuberance remained a few weeks later as he re-enacted the encounter, burning a chunk of bear root given to him as a gift. He inhaled the sweet smoke.

Faller is now convinced the lump in his throat isn’t cancer. He feels good, except for the radiation hangover. Summer has brought warmth and light. Faller even made an appointment with his VA doctor to have the lump inspected, to determine for sure if it’s cancer. If it’s not, he might want it removed.

In a rare outburst, Jane disagreed. “I wouldn’t bother it,” she said tersely. Recently, Faller chickened out. He canceled the VA appointment.

Reverse mortgage pays the bills

The Fallers don’t involve their children in their decisions. The four surviving children have lives in places across the country. Some of them call often, keeping a tab on their “mommy.” Both Fallers are frustrated they really only communicate with their grandchildren through Facebook. Sometimes they wonder if the kids rebelled against their nontraditional upbringing.

But the Fallers have no regrets about their wandering years, even though it wasn’t a great retirement savings plan. Both agreed they never thought about getting old or saving money for the future. They were too busy living in the now.

After illness struck, they decided to get a reverse mortgage on their home that allows them to survive on $1,800 a month. They considered moving to North Carolina to live near a son. But their reality is Republic.

“This is a good place to have this situation,” said Faller, looking at his garden. “Providence has worked for us magnificently through our life.”

‘There is now’

Cherie Gorton of Rural Resources checks on the Fallers periodically. Besides the gas vouchers she gives them, she also ensures Jane gets respite – a free massage every other week.

Gorton worries about the Fallers, like she does many of her clients. She wonders what will happen to Jane if Bob dies. She’s offered more services, like someone to help care for the animals. Yet the Fallers are independent and proud; they feel capable and want that help to go to those in need.

Her love for the Fallers is evident when the couple walk into the senior center to teach a new community yoga class. This is the second week and the room is full. Bob is nervous to teach again because he can’t do the balance poses. But once he sees the turnout, he relaxes and takes charge.

Faller gently grumbles at his wife for tangling her legs during a floor pose. She smiles and blushes like a girl. He stares at her with admiration, his love obvious as Jane bends more like a young dancer than a grandmother.

Faller turns on a relaxation CD for the ending minutes, telling the class to “absorb this quiet time.” He dims the lights. Then he shares some of his wisdom.

“There is no time,” he said softly. “There is now. Be one with yourself.”

Erica Curless wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP.

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