Death of a Friend

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My friend, Gail Walton, died today, She was 69 years-old.  That’s her in the picture, on the left in the blue shirt. She is with her life-partner of more than twenty-five years, my college friend Bonnie Powell.  The picture was taken in 2000, not long after they got McDuff, the Jack Russell Terrier in the middle.

Gail was a wonderful woman with a big heart. She loved dogs and rescued her fair share of abandoned or abused critters.She ran a pet supply business for a while. She was also a respiratory therapist, a gourmet cook, an M.P. when she was in the Army, and a whole assortment of other occupations or pre-occupations. She was witty and beautiful.

Fawn Hill feels a little lonely tonight. A year ago I never imagined I would be living here, neither did Gail and Bonnie.  After I moved here in June we talked about how incredible it was that we had become neighbors. Gail said, “Alice, I believe some energy has brought you here.” Just a few weeks later she was diagnosed with an advanced case of recurring lung cancer. Eight years ago she had a lung removed and the doctors felt they had gotten all of it. But they didn’t. By the time Gail was diagnosed, just over four weeks ago, the cancer was everywhere. There was nothing that could be done. Hospice was brought in.

Hospice was my occupation for the last six years of my working career. The irony that I would arrive here just before Gail’s awful diagnosis was not lost on any of us. I did the best I could in advising and helping. I have to say, however, that administering hospice care to a friend is so much harder than administering such care to others. When I was working for hospice people would often ask me, “How can you do that kind of work?”  I would explain that there was a certain level of detachment, which is not to say disinterest or aloofness,  but rather an acceptance that death is inevitable and that dying patients deserve compassion and competent care.

When the patient is your friend or a family member (and I have had experience in both instances) it seems that all you have learned in ministering to the dying patient just goes away and you feel helpless. You lose the objectivity that is normally present. Your thought process seems fuzzy and muddled. Actions and reactions that once seemed so sure and competent become tentative. The shroud of grief becomes becomes a straight-jacket that seems to paralyze you.

We did the best we could in caring for Gail. She was surrounded by loving friends and, for the most part,  we were able to control the pain. Still, it has been a difficult time that has once again brought home the fundamental truth: Life is short. Carpe diem! ❧

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