Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A sad journey and writing task

By Pat Remick

I recently got on an airplane for the first time in 24 years. I decided that if my friend Phil Valley could face his impending death with such courage and dignity, I could overcome my fear of flying to get to Texas in time to say goodbye to a man I've known longer than my own husband.

It wasn't easy. And yes, it did require a little chemical help, although far less than expected. I considered Amtrak -- my long-distance mode of travel over the past two decades -- but my last trip from New Hampshire to Fort Worth took 59 1/2 hours. My husband and I weren't sure we had that much time.

Although Phil could no longer speak because of his breathing tube, he could mouth words. As ill as he was, he had a twinkle in his eye when he asked: "Five hours vs. 59 1/2 hours -- what do you think now?" We both laughed. I told him he had inspired me and along with the precious gift of his friendship, he had given me the courage to face my fear of flying. I will be eternally grateful for both. 

I first met Phil on a sultry Texas evening in the late 1970s. I was visiting my University of New Hampshire roommate in Fort Worth and we realized over margaritas that our dear Portsmouth, NH, high school friend Diane, whom we had lost contact with during college, also lived in that Texas city. Phil watched in disbelief, one eyebrow cocked, as my friend Sheila and I barged into their apartment searching for Diane, who was sick in bed with bronchitis. The three of us quickly resumed our lifelong and laugh-filled conversation as if we'd never been separated. Phil had no idea of the force that had just blown into his life and I don't believe his eyebrow ever went back down in the 35 years that followed.

There were countless escapades, shared holidays, many life changes and, always, much laughter during that time. Phil is the handsome man in the rear in this photo, taken so long ago that the squirming child in my lap (I'm on the left) is now a policeman and the guy next to my friend Sheila (on the far right) is no longer her husband.

Phil, who spent his final 10 years in a wheelchair after sheer will no longer was sufficient against a devastating diagnosis of muscular dystrophy, fulfilled his dream of accompanying the sweet little blonde girl in the yellow outfit in the middle down the aisle in March.

Phil knew he would eventually die from MD and said many times that he did not want to rely on machines to live. When he was hit by a mysterious infection that ravaged his body, it led to four months of hospitalization and multiple organ failure. A few days before his death, he suddenly became incredibly lucid and let it be known that he would be ready to die after he said goodbye to the special people in his life. As sad as it was, we had the opportunity to share wonderful memories and say the things we wanted him to hear before he departed this world. It was truly a gift.

When Diane asked me to write Phil's obituary, I was honored but also concerned about the task of reducing the essence of such a good man and wonderful friend to just a few words. As some of you may unfortunately know, being a writer doesn't make it any easier to compose an obituary for someone you know. This was the best I could do:
"Phil was a man of unparalleled determination and courage who inspired others beyond their imagined capabilities and faced his own disease with dignity and grace. He loved to tell a good story as much as hearing one; appreciated baseball and a beer as much as fine food and a glass of good wine; and was an intellectually curious man with a brilliant mind and sardonic wit. But most of all, he greatly appreciated his loving family, his friends and the comfort of gentle sunshine on his peaceful patio."
And they appreciated him, as well. To read Phil's entire obituary, click here.

Have you ever had to compose an obituary for someone you knew, or write something as difficult?


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Joyce Tremel said...

Beautiful tribute, Pat.

Fortunately, I've never had to write anything like that.

Jenna said...

Very sad. Sorry for your loss, Pat, but I agree with Joyce, it's a beautiful tribute.

Annette said...

I've never had to write an obit, but I've written memorial posts on my blog when my dad passed and then when my cousin was killed in a car crash. Both were torture, but therapeutic at the same time.

You've written a lovely tribute to your friend, Pat. I'm so sorry for your loss.

PatRemick said...

Thank you. As you know, it's never easy. We struggle with words for our fiction but writing about something so real can be torture, for sure.

Linda Leszczuk said...

The hardest thing I ever had to write (or read) was my mother's eulogy. You wrote a lovely obituary for your friend. I'm sure he knows and appreciates it.