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Archive for June 2011

Forget the tiara ~ Diana remembered

Princess Diana would have turned 50 this month. Newsweek published a story by Tina Brown speculating on Diana's life in 2011, had she lived.  

She was a young, unsuspecting bride, when she married Charles in 1981. And for all the royal pageantry, her life was not a happily-ever-after story.

 Except for her sons. Every photo of Diana with William and Harry tells a story of a devoted mother with happy children; a young woman striving to teach values of compassion and commitment.

 Forget the tiara and title, Diana's legacy to the world is two wonderful young children. And that is every mother's happily-ever-after.

(AP archive photo)

Searching for Maxine

My 90-year-old mother's friend, also 90, recently lost her sister-in-law. Her name was Maxine. I've been watching for Maxine's obituary in our newspaper this past week. I've spotted two or three Maxines in that time, but not the Maxine I was searching for.

I soon realized that Maxine is another of the old names lost in popular culture now. And indeed, it doesn't show up on the Social Security list of most popular girl names in the 2000s. But in the 1920s, when most of the Maxines in our obit section were born, Maxine was the 84th most popular girl name.

Just sign it

Our column today is about what to say in condolence cards for co-workers in your workplace.

What I didn't say in the column was this: When you have the chance to sign a communal card for a co-worker, be it condolence, birthday or retirement, always take the opportunity. Sometimes people think they'll just write a longer, personal card in the future. And that's great if it happens. But what often happens with me is that I have the good intention and then life intervenes. The private card never gets written.

So if you have the chance, sign the card.

Losing your mind: Do you want to know?

Spinal fluid tests can now “see” what are possible telltale signs of impending Alzheimer's disease. In a Reuters story about a report in the journal Neurology, the writer explained:

Current spinal fluid tests for Alzheimer's look for an imbalance in two proteins: beta amyloid, which forms sticky plaques in the brain, and tau, which is seen as a marker of brain cell damage. People with Alzheimer's tend to have lower levels of beta amyloid and higher levels of tau protein in their spinal fluid, and doctors often test for this to confirm the dementia is caused by Alzheimer's.

But would you want to know?

Sad lives for foreign commenters

Our blog was filled this morning with spam posted as comments. Here's what it read:

 shoes 、 T-shirt 、 Sunglass、 Caps&hats 、 Handbags、Jersey The network shopping from the start Please look: tradetrusting

One of the editors here said these ads are likely generated by workers in foreign countries who get paid very little to search American websites for comment opportunities and then post these ads there, advertising junk.

It can make you crazy seeing them, and we delete them as soon as discovered, but it makes me sad, too, that someone's work is made up of such stuff. In a blog that looks at grief issues, it's death-of-the-soul work. An impoverished person posting junk for sale on websites they likely can't even read. 

To nurture, to keep safe, to love

I can't seem to forget about Frances Swan, the 106-year-old woman discovered by Stevens County sheriff's deputies last month. She was hungry and neglected by her “caregiver.”

She asked for food and wanted to be taken to a hospital where people would feed her and talk to her and be nice to her.

I ponder these simple requests in the hectic pace of our lives. Most of us want exactly that: to be nurtured - with food and safety and security; to live in community with other people - a family, given by birth or choice; and to know companionship - in ways of kindness and generosity, selflessness.

Reportedly, the people at a care center in Colville where Frances now lives have answered her plea; she receives food and kindness,care and friendship in a secure home.

May we pause from our hectic lives to offer the same to those who need us.

Peter Falk: Human and angel

Actor Peter Falk died Thursday at 83. Everyone knew him as Detective Columbo in the crime series, but I loved him best in the foreign film Wings of Desire in which he plays an angel who had opted to fall from angelic status and live as a human being.

The movie, badly remade in the United States as City of Angels, made me hope that indeed, angels hang out in libraries and on top of buildings and hear our cries of anguish and comfort in invisible ways. And maybe, some even join us here.

Falk was the perfect angel who chose mortality. In real life, he lives on indefinitely in his great works in television and in movies, most notably Wings of Desire.

Our living historians are dying off

The day after my Sunday story about Spokane's “first” real adult soccer team (from the 1950s), a 93-year-old woman called me to tell me that there had, indeed, been an adult team in the early 1900s in Spokane.

Indeed, she was right, and even though I'd searched soccer history in our archives for the story, our clipped newspaper archives didn't go back far enough. The woman knew this because her dad was one of the players.

I searched on his name, Jack Kaye, in Google news archives and found a few stories from 1912 and 1913 when the “Rose Soccer Team” played two other teams: The Indians and the Spokanes.

The teams were made up of men from England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany., immigrants who found their way to Spokane at the turn of the 20th century.

I didn't get one other call to inform me of this historical oversight in my story. It makes me realize our living historians, such as the nice woman who called, are dying off.

We’re losing a generation of “fact checkers” one by one, every day. We'll miss them.

Deeper dive…paradigm shift

In the decades that I have worked in healthcare, there has been a hit parade of buzz words and phrases: “paradigm shift,” “at-the-end-of-the-day,” “thrown under the bus,”“low-hanging fruit” and…”are we complete?” That last one was from a consultant who brought his own hanger to meetings for his suit jacket. We did not remain “complete” with him for very long.

The buzz phrase today is “deeper dive:” when examining issues or making plans with complex dimensions, we must take a “deeper dive” before moving forward.

This morning I was swimming laps and I do not take deep dives into the pool, just rhythmical strokes back and forth until I have covered a mile. During my last few laps I did stroke down to the bottom of the pool, stretching my arms, slowing the pace and thinking about the day ahead. Then a shimmering spot caught my attention, I slowed way down, circled back and picked it up: a diamond earring.

I paused and wondered about who may have lost it, on what occasion it came to its owner. .. And I know it wasn’t the “deeper dive” that took me to the shiny prize, but the slower pace, the pay-attention-to-the-moment choice.  Buzz words I’ll keep.

(Yes, I gave the earring to the pool’s manager.)

(About the photo: A swimmer surfaces after plunginginto the Tsunami Swirl pool at Kenwood Cove in Salina, Kan. AP Photo/Salina Journal, Tom Dorsey)

Jackass way to go

The Associated Press reported today that Ryan Dunn of reality show Jackass fame was really drink when he died in a car accident last week.

Accoring to AP: Dunn's blood-alcohol level was 0.196 at the time of the crash early Monday morning. The report was released Wednesday by West Goshen Township Police.The legal limit for drivers in the state is .08.Police say Dunn may have been going as fast as 140 mph when his Porsche veered off the roadway, went airborne and crashed into the woods in a Philadelphia suburb.

Because of this column, and the number of older people in my family right now, including a 90-year-old mother, I sometimes find myself in conversations about the “best” way to die.

Dying while drunk has never been a top choice. Very sad, this story.

(AP photo of Ryan Dunn)

Who or what determines the unbroken?

Just finished Unbroken: A  World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the bestselling “Seabiscuit” made into a well-loved movie.

Here's a summary of Unbroken, from a New York Times review:

In late May 1943, the B-24 carrying the 26-year-old (Louis) Zamperini went down over the Pacific. For nearly seven weeks — longer, Hillenbrand believes, than any other such instance in recorded history — Zamperini and his pilot managed to survive on a fragile raft. They traveled 2,000 miles, only to land in a series of Japanese prison camps, where, for the next two years, Zamperini underwent a whole new set of tortures. His is one of the most spectacular odysseys of this or any other war, and “odyssey” is the right word, for with its tempests and furies and monsters, many of them human, Zamperini’s saga is something out of Greek mythology.

Why, in horrific situations, do some people survive and others perish pretty quickly, even when faced with the same indignities? Short answer: It's complicated — and fascinating. The book stays with you for days and you can't put it down and it's not as difficult to read the torture descriptions, as I feared.

Do I dare say it would even be a good beach book? I dare.

(AP photo, from 2003, of Zamperini who was also an Olympics contender in 1936 in Berlin)

Directing the last good-bye: education is here

Lake Washington Technical College offers a unique program for people looking for work outside the box: funeral service education.   

This program is the first one of its kind in Washington state. Seven people graduated last week with nine more scheduled to finish their program in August.  The work demands skills and education in business, psychology of grief, understanding the science of the body and art (to restore an image of likeness).

 Although Lake Washington trains its students in both aspects, a funeral director and an embalmer have separate roles in treating deaths. The funeral director arranges for disposal of the body, prepares the deceased for viewing and arranges an embalming, although 70% of Washingtonians opt for cremation.

 People need compassion and commitment as well as technical skills when caring for families at this rite of passage. Good to know we now have a much-needed education program in our own state.

Save old photos

All last week, I worked on a Sunday story about the Spokane Spokes, a Spokane soccer team started in the late 1950s. My brother-in-law, Adam Deutsch, played on the team in 1959.

Word got out in Spokane's German-American community that I was working on the story and several people called with helpful information. One woman, Anna Hintyesz, told me she had photos of Adam that my family had likely never seen. I drove to her house and indeed, she possessed three photos of my brother-in-law, who died in 1993, photos we'd never seen before.

It was Adam, young and in terrific shape. (He had a stroke in 1962, at just age 25.) The photos are priceless for my sister and her family, and it's one more reminder of the power of old photographs to give as memorial “gifts” to people who have lost a loved one.

And it's never too late to give those pictures to folks. I made 8X10 copies of the 1962 photos for Adam's grown children. A Father's Day gift made possible by Anna Hintyesz.

(Photo of Adam — in dark suit — at a 1962 Spokane Spokes game in Canada. Photo courtesy of Anna Hintyesz)

Policing ~ with care

Mental illness plagues many of our homeless neighbors. Their behavior is often interpreted as threatening or at least confusing and bothersome. The Seattle Police Department now has a mental health expert who rides with them, often as the initial contact for a person deemed experiencing a mental health crisis. Perhaps other law enforcement groups will take a look at this model of community policing - and create a compassionate outreach program like it. We all know someone who suffers from mental health challenges; we know that resources are few.

 A trained caregiver out in our community can reduce anxiety - for the person on the street as well as officers who are trained and committed to protect their communities.  

Talk about holding a grudge

CathNews USA posted a story today about a Catholic group that has demanded an apology from the Vatican for an offense that happened in 1314. Here's their illustration and an excerpt from the story:

The heirs to the Knights Templar have demanded an apology from the Vatican for the execuion of their last leader, Jacques de Molay, who was burned at the stake in 1314.De Molay was executed in Paris on charges of heresy, black magic and idolatry, the UK Telegraph reports.His death was part of a concerted campaign to suppress the chivalric order by King Philip IV of France, who had grown suspicious of the Templars’ power and envious of their wealth.

My favorite line in the story? The last one. It reads: “A Vatican spokesman said the request was being considered.”

How long would your family hold out for an apology over some injustice?

Request the no-flu seat in airplane

When people complain about air travel. they often include this fear: The chance of picking up a life-threatening illness. It does happen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released information about how close you have to be sitting to an infected passenger to be at the most risk.


Here's their release:

Air travel is one of the fastest ways to spread infectious diseases around the globe; the rapid spread of pandemic flu in 2009 was a prime example. Preventing the spread of infection among air passengers involves contacting those who sat near symptomatic passengers. However, the definition of “near” varies according to how infectious the virus is and how much the passengers and crew move around. It also depends on the length of the flight and how good the air circulation is. A study of flights to Australia found that for flu, the risk zone is smaller than previously thought. On long flights, risk was higher for those sitting in a smaller square zone around a symptomatic passenger (2 seats to either side and 2 seats in front and behind) than in the larger linear zone previously used (2 rows on either side). Narrowing the zone, and thus the number of potentially exposed passengers, may speed the contact process so exposed passengers can get preventive health care sooner.

Last words: Lose weight?

In this week's EndNotes column in The Spokesman-Review, Cathy did a great job of looking at what's important at the end of a person's life. Relationships matter more than anything else.

So, at first read, it seemed a little shallow when Marie Osmond's mom, on her deathbed, told her daughter to “lose weight.” In the July Prevention magazine, Osmond went on to explain that her mom's advice was to take care of her body as a sign she was spending time and energy on herself. Makes sense.

But the “lose weight” line brought me back to wondering how stupid it will have seemed to worry so much about our weight throughout our lives, especially women. Will it seem like a huge waste of time and energy?

I recently went through some old photos I inherited from a surrogate grandmother. Found the photo posted above in one of her photo albums, dated August 1930. An unknown woman (with the seaweed draped over her!) wrote on the back of the photo: “I'm not that fat. This should be destroyed.”


In the New Yorker this week, there’s a heartbreaking piece called “The Aquarium” by Aleksander Hemon. His baby, Isabel, was diagnosed with a rare, fast-growing brain tumor at 9 months and died within a year. It is profound, honest and raw. Here are two excerpts:

” After I told my tax accountant that Isabel was gravely ill, he said, ‘But you look good, and that’s the most important thing.'”

” Without Isabel, Teri and I were left with oceans of love we could no longer dispense; we found ourselves with an excess of time that we used to devote to her; we had to live in a void that could be filled only by Isabel. Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”

A week to remember - dad

This week we look forward to Father's Day - next Sunday. The commercials are filled with images of gleeful children scurrying towards dad with Hallmark cards in hand. Many people do not have the dad of television commercials; some people may not even know their dad or have horrible memories of neglect or abuse.

 This Father's Day business can be complicated.

 My dad died six years ago this week. I had my airline tickets in hand and he died - 2000 miles away and three days - before we would travel. We viewed his body on Father's Day and I tucked my card into his casket. Words. We loved words. A few years before he died, he said, “I don't know who you would get to give a eulogy?” And then he looked into my eyes. I replied, “I can do that, Dad.”

 As you look forward to Father's Day, recall the men who nurtured and loved you - dad or not - and take time to say your words.

 Here is the conclusion from that eulogy, my last gift to my dad.  . .

 “We do not know how to let go of Dad’s hand that has guided us forever.  But we do know this: Our dad loved well, he cared deeply for his family and friends; and he taught us what we need to know, to understand, to live the rest of our lives without him.

“We have photographs and stories, but mostly we have full hearts. He gave us many experiences, but the best thing he gave us was an exceptional love that transcends even death.

“So he leaves us with a legacy of witty humor and passion for life, a legacy of quiet confidence and compassion, a legacy of his steadfast love. We will hold fast to his legacy today and each day until the moment when we join him, when we can embrace him, and take his hand once again.

This is cursive, signing off

As a left-hander, I was often scolded by my elementary school teachers to hold my hand so that my cursive letters would slant correctly. Each report card came home with “N” for my handwriting grade (N= Needs Improvement).

 For many of today's elementary school students, the handwriting assessment is replaced with “keyboarding,” a function that allows both hands to work easily towards a readable outcome. Many states do not mandate that cursive writing be taught.   

At the least, our children will lose their unique signatures and perhaps tragically not be able to decipher grandparents' letters or journals mom wrote in college. And one's need for spelling skills may disappear, too, with Spell Check and texting shorthand. What will the future hold?  IDK.

Shhhh…a secret?

“He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured.”  ~ Ethiopian Proverb

I love this proverb; we conceal our illness, our weakness and often suffer in silence. However, when we make ourselves vulnerable, often answers, healing and support may show up – and offer hope and even health restored.

Have you ever been seriously ill or experienced a situation that felt shameful such as domestic violence, mental illness? If so, how much did you conceal your disease – or not? Thoughts?

Bathroom breaks

It's a little embarrassing, perhaps, but one dangerous place in your house is the bathroom.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today that  “In one year, an estimated 234,000 people ages 15 and older were treated in U.S. emergency departments for bathroom-related injuries—an average of about 640 people each day.”

IMost common injuries? Cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Rates of fractures and hospitalizations were highest among adults ages 65 and older.

People sometime cite famous astronaut John Glenn's bathroom fall as an example of life's weird twists and turns. He survived a historic ride to space only to slip on a bathroom rug at home on Feb, 26, 1964, screwing up his inner ear balance for a long time.

So hey, be careful in there.

(AP archive photo)

Emails from the grave

Just finished my Sunday story on how low long distance charges have resulted in a ho-hum attitude toward those calls.  I interviewed a telecommunications expert from South Carolina, Gene Retske, who said within five years phone calls won't be nearly as popular as they have been through history. People will do a lot more texting and email to conduct business and keep in touch.

Then he said: “I was watching an old Twilight Zone today. If Rod Serling were around today, he'd have (episodes) featuring emails from your dead parents.”

For all other Twilight Zone fans out there, think back to how many of his episodes featured people communicating from the great beyond.

I still it's a shame Serling died at 50, of a heart attack. Who knows what more he could have created. Emails from the dead?

(AP archive photo)

Calling all angel stories

Therese Marszalek, a Christian writer from Deer Park has written several books on miracles in everday life. I wrote a story about her in October when her latest book came out.

She emailed several people yesterday with this request which I said I'd pass on in this blog.

She wrote:   I'm writing to regarding a phone call I received from a television producer in LA who is doing a documentary called “Angels Among Us” - The program will include stories about everyday people, whose lives were saved by angelic intervention, or people who were rescued from a near death experience by the helping hand of a supernatural intervention. If you know of any CREDIBLE angelic stories (there must be witnesses, not a coincidence story - the facts MUST check out) that fit this category that have taken place within THE LAST FIVE YEARS…Please e-mail me asap and I will pass the info on to the producer. If you can submit a one paragraph summary of the story, we'll go from there. Please keep in mind the producers are under a deadline (the end of the week) and do not have time to wade through stories that will not be strong enough of fit their criteria. Please respect their requirements. I look forward to hearing from you. (Her email:

How do you think the producers verify angel stories?

(S-R archive photo of angels in old TV series “Touched by an Angel.”)

Catholic Jedi Academy’s Doomsday for Dummies

The Catholic Jedi Academy, a creative group, has put out a nine-minute video titled Doomsday for Dummies.

It's a fun and well-done look at the May 21 end-of-the-world prophecy that didn't happen. The video makers, a group that describes itself as “cyber-artificial-pretend-reality called The Catholic Jedi Academy School Of Video Arts (where Our Lord Jesus Christ is THE Headmaster)” counts out at least 275 end-of-the-world predictions.

One of the lines in the video I like: “Time is always running out.” 

Three funerals, two weddings, one month

I have attended three funerals in two weeks: a 20-something, a 30-something – both died unexpectedly – and a 60-something who had a year to live with a cancer diagnosis.  And while the 60-something had time to plan, she did not include some important details.

We plan for weddings with meticulous detail: the ritual, the location, and the key players. We do not like to plan for our final exit, but planning can make our final exit easier for us, as well as those who care for us.

Washington recognizes a document titled: Five Wishes. It is a living will with details and allows one to give direction on end-of-life care, who knows funeral preferences, and our most important messages to others, when a person may not be able to speak for her/himself.

The weddings in two weeks are well-planned: a beach ceremony with country club reception and the other  wedding in a private garden with casual attire for the Hawaii-bound couple.  Every guest knows that these are the desires of each couple.

Those attending our final farewell deserve the same confidence as they send us off on our last journey.

Countering anxiety with kindness

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Wise Words with Kent Hoffman

At the end of people's lives, many people, if they can face the hard fact, regret the times they hurt others in ways small and large.

Kent Hoffman, my Wise Words interview Saturday, believes in the power of kindness. He said it's an antidote to the free-floating anxiety, fear and rage in our culture right now. And if you start practicing kindness now, you won't have as many regrets on your death bed! Practicing kindness is easier than it sounds. Here's what Hoffman said:

Kindness means slowing down and seeing the infinite worth in people. It’s in the little stuff. One of my favorite places is the checkout stand, where it’s fun to slow down and interact with the person doing the checking. The choice point for me is between being abrupt and quick, versus slowing down and saying here’s five minutes of my life that I won’t get back, so enjoy it. I was getting my tires put on, and the guy in front of me was furious, and he was yelling, and then stormed out. The guy behind the counter didn’t do anything wrong. He just wasn’t quick enough. He got blasted. I felt compassion for the guy and he sensed it. A lot happens nonverbally.  Kindness isn’t doing kindness. It’s being kindness. We slow down. We make ourselves available.

(SR photo by Dan Pelle) 

“Get over it!”

There's a saying that if you hear something — a phrase or a story — three times in a short time, it means the universe is trying to get your attention. Well, I'm listening.

In the past week, I've heard or read three different stories from people in grief who were told to “get over it” because some time had passed since the death of a loved one. The advice is never helpful.

In Thursday's Voice section, reader Debbie Palaniuk wrote about her 16-year-old daughter, Kaylene, who died Dec. 4, 2009.

She wrote:

For you that have used the phrase “Get over it!” there is no getting over it. We lost the most important thing a parent can lose – a child. I know people mean well when they say we need to move on or get on with our lives, or “I wish you could be your old self.” However, we will never be who we were before the loss of Kaylene. I know I am a kinder, more considerate person. I do not laugh as quickly as I used to. The drop of Kaylene’s name brings me to tears, sometimes happy and sometimes sad, although friends can make all the difference.

 Thank you, Debbie, for your important message. And your daughter was beautiful!

(Photo of Debbie and Kaylene courtesy of Debbie Palaniuk)

Thirty years of HIV/AIDS

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked back in a press release today to its June 1-June 18, 1982 weekly morbidity report when the agency first reported on what would become the AIDS/HIV epidemic.

“At the time, no one could have predicted the enormous toll the disease would take—claiming the lives of more than 500,000 Americans and many millions worldwide,” the CDC's press release read.

Reading the 1982 report is a little eerie, because the CDC, the country and the world had no idea what was in store. It begins: “CDC received reports of 19 cases of biopsy-confirmed Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) and/or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) among previously healthy homosexual male residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties, California.”

The report went on to say that it wasn't clear whether the cancer was even related to the immune deficiency virus detected in the men.

Thirty years…

Fallout shelter crackers

Over the weekend, I went through four boxes of “must save” items from the past 40 years. It's such an emotional process to decide what to save, what to pitch.

In one box, from my year as a young reporter in Delaware,  I came across crackers I'd been given while doing a story on whatever happened to community fallout shelters. The crackers are about 50 years old and I found a description of them on a museum website. They were called “bulgar wafers.”

It's hard to explain to people who didn't experience the Cold War how massive the preparations were in case we all had to go underground during a nuclear war with Russia. I wonder what those years of fear did to entire generations, in terms of anxiety.

My ancient crackers (pictured here) brought it all back. The question now: What do I do with them? Donate them to a museum? Would a museum want them?

This is the challenge, and the grief, of cleaning out old items. One box down, three to go.

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About this blog

Writer Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Wash., addresses issues facing aging baby boomers and seniors as well as issues of serious illness, death and dying, grief and loss.

Ask a question: Catherine welcomes questions about aging issues and grief. Email her at

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