IN THE OBITUARY, it said nothing of Chris Welna. It said Ellen Steif was 23 and that she had died of cancer, but there was no mention of Welna. He had lived with her and nursed her and slept next to her. He listened to her breathing and got up every two hours to give her the injection and was with her when she slipped into her final coma. She was weak and could fight no more and, in between injections, she dies. She weighed 50 pounds, half of that heart, all of that a gift from Welna.
In was morning. Welna went to the phone and called the Episcopal priest they had met in the hospital and then he called his parents and a friend. Welna, who is Catholic washed the body in the Jewish custom and on Sunday they had a memorial service. An Episcopal priest presided and a friend said Kaddish, which is the Jewish prayer for the dead, and Welna read a poem. Then he got on a plane and flew off to catch up with the rest of his life.
They had met, Chris and Ellen, when they were in college -- Carleton College in Minnesota. She was the freshman and he was the sophomore. Soon she got cancer of the liver. This was 4 1/2 years ago. Three years ago, they planned her funeral and soon after that Chris Welna put his life on a shelf.
From the picture, it looks like Ellen had dark hair. Actually it was red -- the color of an Irish setter, someone said. She was pretty and she was smart and she knew all along she was going to die. She could die in a hospital or she could die in a hospice or she could die at home with Chris. She chose the latter. All she needed was someone to care for her.Chris Welna did that.
He followed Ellen back to Washington, her home town, and stayed with her and her mother. They took turns caring for her. Chris dropped out of school and then when Ellen regained strength, they went back to Carleton together, but it was no good. Ellen took chemotherapy in Minneapolis and her weight went down to about 77 pounds. She returned home and had her sixth operation on New Year's Eve, 1977. For hours, she bled and the doctors stayed in the hospital three months and for three months Chris stayed with her. Sometimes he would sleep in her room.
He dropped out of school again. He had won a Wilson Fellowship to study human rights in Brazil, but he postoned that. He said no to New York University Law School and the offer of a scholarship. He stayed with Ellen and made his plans. In June, he took her to Brazil. He found a room there and a nurse and made arrangements for her drugs. In September they were forced to return. She came back on a stretcher.
He got an apartment near Dupont Circle. He took part-time jobs nearby so he could go home every two hours to give her the shots she craved -- Dilaudid to kill the pain. Even in her comas, Ellen craved the drug. Even in her comas, the pain presisted, and when she fell in comas, Chris would not leave her. He would not go out of the apartment and even during other times he would never go far or for long.
A year later, Chris Welna was accepted once again to law school and once again he put it off for Ellen. Eventually, they moved to a larger apartment and his brother came to live with them. He helped and friends helped and Ellen's mother and grandmother helped, too. Ellen continued to lose weight. She moved in and out of comas and when she was in one, Chris would not leave her. After a while, she could do no more than lie in bed. But last month, on Chris's birthday, she arranged a surprise party for him. She made the calls herself and that night she mustered all her strength and she stood. It was the last time.
Chris Welna says what he did was not exceptional.The sad fact is that it is. He says this should be about Ellen and not about him. It is about both of them. He says he did what he did incrementally, because they had once been lovers and always close friends and because, as he put it, "She really needed a friend." The cancer, after all, was not her fault. It was an awful thing her body was doing. They talked about it that way: There was Ellen and there was Chris and there was her damned body. It was dying on her. Last Tuesday, Chris awoke at 6 to give Ellen her shot. She was in a coma. He went back to sleep. He awoke at 8. She was not breathing. She was still warm. She had just died. It was all over and he went to make his phone calls.
Now, Chris Welna is back in Minnesota. He is visiting his parents and thinking of his life at 27 and he has, he says, no regrets. He will go soon to Carleton College to tell Ellen's friends what has happened and then, if the snows hold off, he will go to the north woods. He and Ellen spent a week there -- a wonderful week, an idyllic week for her. There, Ellen Steif's best friend will honor her last request. Chris Welna will bury her ashes.