Say­ing good­bye, and ask­ing life’s hard ques­tions, to my big­gest fan

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - Rose­mary O'Hara Reach Sun Sentinel Ed­i­to­rial Page Edi­tor Rose­mary O’Hara at ro­[email protected] or on Twit­ter @Rose­maryOhara14.

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?”

COUR­TESY

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