Saying goodbye, and asking life’s hard questions, to my biggest fan
I was feeling pretty grumpy the day I met Dennis Wallace, the son of one of my biggest fans.
It was my first day working out of our offices in Deerfield Beach, where the Sun Sentinel consolidated its newsrooms about two years ago.
My husband and I live in Victoria Park, walking distance to our old offices on Broward Boulevard. And because of the I-95 nightmare, it had taken me 45 minutes to reach my new digs.
I have to hand it to Dennis, who as production and facilities maintenance manager, makes sure everything from the plumbing to the printing presses runs smoothly. His team had transformed two small offices into one big office for me, complete with a conference table and a flatscreen television. And when he heard my chair hadn’t made the move, he reappeared with a hifalutin high-back, which I recently learned was his.
What I remember most about that morning was the twinkle in his eye when he mentioned his mother, Lin Wallace, of Sunrise. When he told her what he was doing at work, she asked if he knew me. “She’s a big fan of yours,” he said, smiling.
Funny how your mood lifts when someone says something nice like that. It doesn’t happen that often in my job. For one thing, the editorials I write or edit are unsigned, so most people have no idea who I am or what I do. For another, writing an editorial can be like delivering a performance review in public. It doesn’t put you first on the party list.
Two months ago, I heard from Dennis after receiving an award. His mom had texted him to check out the story on page 3B. But that wasn’t the only reason for his email. His mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 head and neck cancer. “Could you carve out five minutes of your schedule to meet her? She would be thrilled.”
You bet, I replied. “I can’t afford to lose any fans!”
We made a date to go to lunch after one of her radiation treatments. But first, he wanted her to see his handiwork and “where her favorite newspaper-person works.”
I liked Lin from the moment I saw her. She’s pretty and thin, with short gray hair, earnest eyes, an inquisitive mind and a positive disposition. I had questions I wanted to ask while Dennis went to get his truck. But she had questions, too, starting with why I string white lights over the pictures on my wall. I don’t like the darkness that descends after December, I told her, so I switch from red-and-green and keep them lit year-round.
She turned to the day’s news from Washington. It was clear she pays attention. Her politics are different from her son’s, she said, so they just don’t go there. I said the same is true in my family. Funny how people from the same gene pool can hold such different world views. Neither nature nor nurture explains that.
As she spoke, Lin held her hand near the side of her face, which drooped a bit since surgery. She mentioned how I’d had cancer, too. How did she know that? I couldn’t recall having ever written about it. Turns As she prepares to face death, Lin Wallace of Sunrise, shown here with her late husband, Don, talked about life with Sun Sentinel Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O'Hara, her favorite newspaper-person.
out she’d watched a Facebook Live debate we’d held on medical marijuana. During it, I’d shared how grateful I was that a thenanonymous co-worker had sent me some joints when I was deathly sick from chemotherapy.
I put my questions on hold because it was time to meet Dennis downstairs. I watched Lin climb into his Ford F-350 like a lithe teenager. But at lunch, she hardly ate her turkey soup.
Afterward, when Dennis went to retrieve the truck, I tried to squeeze in my questions.
How did she like retirement? I asked because I turned 63 this week and see a shorter view out the windshield than the rearview mirror. Did she ever feel bored?
Lin retired from the Broward school district when she was 60. She’d worked at Nova and Stranahan High Schools, in the drop-out prevention program and as the assistant to the South Area Superintendent, her best boss ever. She was a problemsolver, but found the people who call the school board could be rude and abusive. After 30 years, she had had enough.
Plus, her life changed when her husband, Don Wallace, died at 57.
Don was a Fort Lauderdale police officer who once made the Sun Sentinel’s front page as the “Grinch of Christmas.” It happened after the Winterfest Boat Parade. The bridge tender at Oakland Park Boulevard refused to lower the bridge after the parade had passed. Don knocked on her window and ordered her to lower it. She ignored him, citing orders of her own. He broke the window and arrested her. His friends nicknamed him “The Troll.” He wore the moniker on his motorcycle jacket. Dennis had the image tattooed on his back.
Lin said she kept busy in retirement, but wished she’d traveled more. If the treatment was successful, she said she would.
I had more questions, but Dennis was back and it was time to say good-bye.
I checked in every now and then, anticipating last week’s punch in the gut. An MRI showed cancer had wrapped around Lin’s spine, with spots stretching from her leg to her head. No wonder she had such pain.
“The day she went out with you was really her last good day,” Dennis wrote back. “She had such a good time. Two days ago, I saw her old boss at the hospital and he told me all about my mom telling him of the visit with you.
“Please say a prayer for your biggest fan.”
I had to see her one more time. I still had questions. Mostly I wanted to know, as she faced death, how does she reflect on life?
When I walked into the room, she called my name with delight.
“I’ve got a question for you!” she said, almost instantly.
“Good, because I’ve got questions for you, too,” I replied. Once again, I took the chair that Dennis offered me, this one beside his mom’s bed.
“Do you read The Atlantic?” she asked. “There’s an article by John Dickerson and whether the presidency is too big for one person. I’m pretty sure it was the May edition. There’s information in there. I was thinking about you.”
I realized the final days aren’t so different than any other day. There’s not some big aha. What interests you, interests you. But either because of the treatment or the facility, food may no longer taste so good. Now it was my turn.
Why do you like me? “The stuff you write is hard. I like your writing, I believe not only do you do your very best, you’re on the mark. I assume you have help with research. No? You just gave me another reason. … Doesn’t it annoy you when people write in those stupid letters?”
I told her I‘d be appearing on Sunday morning’s with
This Week in South Florida
Michael Putney and Glenna Milberg. She’s caught me there often.
“Maybe if I’m still here, I’ll catch it.” It was my opening. She was moving to hospice, but what did she mean, “if I’m still here?”
“I’m going to die,” she said, her sentences coming more slowly. “There’s not much I can do about it. I think I’m still in denial. It happened so fast. I continually try to replay, what were the symptoms? Did I do this to myself?”
For the record, Lin wasn’t a smoker. And it was impossible to ignore her first symptom. Her lower eyelid drooped down to her cheek overnight. Then she felt a lump in her neck. Her cancer is rare, one in 500,000. “I’m number one for the first time in my life.”
Does she have any regrets? “I’m kind of ticked off because I want to see Dennis’ daughter graduate and see how she gets on with her life.”
She got choked up talking about her family: sons Michael and Dennis, daughters-in-law Sherri and Teri, and granddaughters Brittany and Courtney.
When it comes to their lives, though, “I always mind my own business.” It’s something she learned from her own mother-inlaw, who didn’t always comply.
But when the chips were down, when Lin and Don divorced for three years, her frugal mother-in-law surprised Lin by helping out with the mortgage. Marriage the second time around was far better, Lin said. But Don had to ask the boys’ permission before she would start anew.
Do you wish you’d worked longer? “No!” she said without hesitation. “I’m going to get in trouble here … What am I saying?! … It aggravated me to know — because I worked so much in the inner workings — that so many people who thought they were running the school system really weren’t qualified.”
What would you like to say to people? “Knock it off. Get real. Learn to like each other and get along with each other. These monumental egos, they get in the way of common sense.”
Dennis encouraged his mom to share her nickname for President Trump. “I call him Twitter Twerp. I can’t say his name. He infuriates me with his rudeness.”
It surprised me that Dennis brought up politics. He shared that he doesn’t like some of what’s been going on, either. He considers himself center-right.
“I just learned something about you,” Lin said. “I am so delighted. I have two boys capable of having different opinions and they have good reasons.”
By now, she was starting to tire, so I prepared to leave.
“I had a good life. I have a few really, really good friends. I don’t think you have too many true friends in life.”
She returned to my question about facing death, something we’ll all face.
“I have the ability to shut my brain off. I think, ‘This can’t be. I’m too young. I’m 77.’ I leaned in to hug her, cheek-to-cheek. “Too many questions come up and I can’t let go,” she said softly.
“Really, I think, where did the time go?”