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The last exit

Published October 13. 2012 09:01AM

My friend Tom died this morning. Although we knew it was coming, it's still hard.

I met Tom and Wanda at dance class and we immediately formed a tight friendship. He called me "Gilbert" instead of my given name because we both were connected at time with that town. He fished in Gilbert while I once worked there as editor of the Pocono Post.

For the last few years, we were with Tom and Wanda during a lot of happy events dances, kayak trips, dinners, and even cruises.

Lately, we've been with them through one hospital stay after the other. For at least 18 months, Tom fought hard, battling a bad heart in addition to prostate cancer then lung cancer.

In between treatments and hospitalizations, he went back to dancing, doing his best to have enough energy to dance at least a little because he didn't want to disappoint Wanda.

They have a sweet love story between them, a late in life blessing for them both. "She brings laughter and fun to my life," he told me right before he sneaked away to the cruise ship jewelry store to buy Wanda an engagement ring.

It was supposed to be a surprise but the surprise was on him. The ship's photographer happened to videotape him as he picked out the ring, We all got a laugh out of the "surprise" when the video was then shown on the ship's close-channel TV.

They were married for a little over two years when he got hit with one medical problem after the other. But he fought hard for Wanda's sake.

The time came when Tom decided he wanted to make his last exit his way. He decided against any more medical intervention. No more chemo. No more tests. No more treatment.

He knew that no matter what he did, his days were limited. He wanted to spend those days his way, not drugged out.

I admired him for making that decision. He came to grips with reality and took control of the days he had left.

Wanda, on the other hand, was inconsolable. "Why won't he fight?" she kept asking us. "I don't want him to give up."

I told her I thought he was doing the right thing. As a former hospice volunteer, I know the wisdom of his decision.

I'm writing about this for the simple reason that we all will face a last exit someday.

Some of us won't have a choice about how we make our exit.

Others, like Tom, will have the opportunity to do it his way.

Tom was strong willed. He lived his life the way he wanted and he faced his death the same way. Eventually, Wanda had no choice but to support him in his decision.

She told me this morning it was the right decision. By not denying the inevitable, they had the chance to talk about important things. That's not the case with a lot of people.

My friend Pat was in the same position as Wanda. She was told her husband's cancer was inoperable but other aggressive treatment could be tried.

Finally, he told her he no longer wanted to be "sick and out of it" from the drugs. His wife would not accept that decision. She said she would spend her last cent and her last ounce of energy trying to find something that would work. She did, but the end result was the same.

"I had to do everything I could for as long as I could," she said.

This is a subject virtually no one wants to talk about. We are encouraged to draw up living wills, detailing what we do and do not want. But there are so many confusing variables so a lot of us don't do it. Put me in that category.

There was no confusion for my friend Tom. He had a choice and he was of sound mind to make that choice.

Wanda said if any death can be called beautiful, his was.

We're all consoled that he had a chance to do it his way. But we all feel like balloons that lost their air.

What do you do when a loved one dies?

The only thing to do is to embrace life with gusto.

Treasure every day. Savor every second.

Cling to each other in love and spread whatever goodness you can wherever you go.

In a few weeks we will have a ceremony to celebrate Tom's life.

Meanwhile, we will celebrate each ordinary day we are given, knowing there is no such thing as an ordinary day.

Every loss, every passing, reinforces our resolve to celebrate life even more.

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