Sunday, 26 January 2014

#365: Learning from Loss

Last week was hard.

This past Wednesday, we lost Bruce's colleague Gerald Adams to pancreatic cancer.  We had been blindsided when we learned of his illness because, of course, we knew the outcome.  Such a diagnosis was not one that could be argued with or negotiated. Gerald did have wonderful hospice care and an amazing, supportive, loving family so in that sense, I suppose, he died a "good" if inevitable death.  But it is all so sad. He was such a lovely man.

Then on Friday we attended the funeral of Janet Wardlaw -- Bruce's former dean (and, incidentally, the first female dean at the U of G).   For the last 15 years she was also our regular companion at the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony.

When I learned that Janet was in the hospital as the result of a fall at Christmas, I was aghast. I did argue. Janet couldn't possibly fall!  How could that happen? (I have to admit that I felt somewhat betrayed.  Janet, how could you?  And I am not alone-- others have sheepishly confessed to having the same initial reaction.)

Because Janet really did seem invincible. She was a role model for her younger friends; we all wanted to be just like her, perpetually youthful and active.   She went swimming several times a week.  She walked downtown. She was so fit that I never once thought to suggest that we take the elevator to our second-balcony symphony seats!  She kept her brain fit playing Bridge and Scrabble and serving on many committees where her intelligence and administrative skills were highly valued.  An international traveller, she always seemed to be going to the States to see former students and colleagues, or to Europe with tour groups from her church.  Even last September as the symphony season recommenced, we asked the usual question, "Janet where did you go this summer?" She told us that she hadn't intended to go away, but that friends or family had talked her into this or that adventure. Friends were always asking her to go along on trips because she was the best possible company -- agreeable, upbeat, curious, and energetic. She was also very sensible, even pragmatic.  Perhaps she developed this habit as a single woman, although I prefer to think that decisiveness was in her nature.  Nevertheless, it was a lesson to us all when, at 80, she sold her beautiful two-storey stone house with its lovely garden and moved into a nearby condo.  Physically she had no need to move and she admitted it.  But she had decided that it was time.  "Less bother eventually for my nieces and nephews" is how she explained it."

When I read Janet's obituary I learned even more about this remarkable woman, including her actual age. I came across the phrase, "Janet Wardlaw in her 90th year..."  . 


A few months ago I had a conversation about death and age with "Hetty" one of my retirement home readers.   Hetty has had a bad year -- two bouts of cancer along with the usual surgeries and radiation. Just as she was between procedures, I visited her and remarked on a bouquet of her favourite yellow roses.  The blooms looked a little droopy, but they had been very pretty when fresh. "Well, Nancy", she observed, "that is the way of the world.  Flowers die.  Old ladies die."  She wasn't being gloomy -- she was telling it like it is because she wasn't really sure I had it all figured out. Hetty knows me so well.

 Janet, how could you?    

But I think I now understand my astonished reaction to Janet's death.  I just never thought of her as OLD.

Of course, Hetty was right.  "Old ladies" of 89 do die, but if they are like Janet they will be well and healthy right up to the finish line.

Janet, forgive me. In your 90th year, you betrayed no-one.  Ever the educator, you were still teaching us about life--and death--even as you left us.  And we won't forget.