Arrow-right Camera

Color Scheme

Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Front Porch: A friend is taken: Dementia stole her before death could

If you had seen my friend Mary Ellen Myrene in the last few years of her life, she’d have seemed pretty unremarkable – a tall and slender white-haired woman who blended into the landscape of other older women living on the periphery of the mainstream world.

She had loved to garden and cook and go and see and do everything interesting. Until she couldn’t. It was sepsis from an infection that killed her, but it was dementia that really took her life.

I have lost too many friends in recent years. I know we’re all going to die sometime, but the list of people I care about who are dying is growing much too fast. And Mary Ellen’s death seems so especially cruel. Let me tell you why.

Mary Ellen graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1961 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Montana, with the encouragement of and mentoring by Spokane’s premier woman journalist, Dorothy Powers. Mary Ellen was working for the Associated Press in Seattle when the AP recruited a select group of its young writers to work at its bureau in New York City. There she covered a variety of national stories and became night city editor overseeing a staff of a dozen journalists.

During her tenure there she began a relationship with another young writer, Tom Harris, and they encouraged each other’s writing. His novel “Black Sunday” was being made into a movie, and she later told me how they would be flown to Miami and wined and dined during the filming. He would go on to write other novels, including “Silence of the Lambs.” The two of them shared a rented summer house in the Hamptons and had wonderful parties.

It was quite the life in New York, but it was not long after their relationship ended that she decided to return to Spokane to write, taking her savings to rent a suite at the Davenport Hotel, where she resided for many months and did just that. In time she would need what she termed a regular job, and in the late 1970s became an associate editor with Spokane Magazine, a new, young city magazine that did serious journalism. It was there that I first met her. A reporter for The Spokesman-Review, I was taking time off to raise my sons, but I wanted to keep a hand in and had begun doing some freelance work.

As fate would have it, my career kept following hers. She went on to work for Jane Johnson in the news bureau at the Community Colleges of Spokane, creating a new magazine for CCS, an innovative and bold initiative for a community college system. I began part-time work at CCS as a news release writer. When Jane became a vice president at Eastern Washington University, she brought MEM with her to rejuvenate and remodel the alumni magazine. And in time, along came me as a full-time news bureau writer at the university.

For several years Mary Ellen and I shared an office at EWU. We were pretty good friends by then. Of all the writers I have known personally, she was clearly one of the best, if not the very best. No one could write a lede like she could, or get into the heart of a story in such a compelling way, or find some unique phrase or verbal image that made a story sing. I remember many of them to this day – from the humor piece she did for Spokane Magazine about how to be the perfect lake cabin guest to the insightful profile she did on Glenn Adams, publisher of Ye Galleon Press in Fairfield.

When the words are perfect, you don’t forget them. Until you do.

My very favorite tale from her own life was of her traveling through the South in the late 1960s covering civil rights, particularly following the work of Coretta Scott King. It was hot and humid when she returned to New York after several weeks on the road in August 1969, and her editor wanted her to cover a music event before taking a couple of days off. She turned the assignment down, citing the need to do laundry and catch up on her mail. And so … dramatic pause here … she missed Woodstock.

We shared a lot of stories, talked about pain and overcoming, laughed a lot; and I, along with many co-workers, got to be the recipient of her wonderful culinary delights. What I never knew until later was that she was an alcoholic. She was by then working again at CCS and her drinking finally overwhelmed her. After a successful rehab, she embraced AA and was all in, held meetings at her home and was herself a sponsor and valuable friend for many with alcohol issues.

I was still at EWU, actively raising a family and dealing with a health issue of my own, so we started to lose touch. And then she was hit with the dementia diagnosis. She told me about it over lunch one day, and I was already able to see its effects in her. And later, when Dorothy Powers died, I offered to take her to the service, but she was not able.

At Mary Ellen’s own memorial service a few weeks ago, I met two of her close friends, Patte DeHan and Michelle Mokrey, whose help and devotion enabled her to stay in her own home until nearly the end of her life. God bless them. Last week, the three of us had dinner, and they filled me in on her later years, on how she kept losing portions of herself, how she couldn’t cook or garden anymore, how she couldn’t read and how she lost the ability to write. Or recall what she had written.

That someone for whom words were the oxygen of life was not able to master or remember them any longer, that was the cruelest of cruelties. And she was aware of it all, of everything that was falling away from her.

It was the big windstorm last November that ended Mary Ellen’s living in her beloved Spokane. Patte found her that night, outside and barefoot. The next day Mary Ellen’s brother came from Wenatchee and brought her home with him. She died in February.

But the Mary Ellen we all knew was already gone a lot earlier. It was just that her body didn’t know it yet. Dementia is brutal and heartbreaking. It stole a friend of mine, and I’m damn mad about it.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at

More from this author