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Robin Williams ~ RIP

He was outrageously hilarious – and quietly kind. Robin Williams, 63, was found dead on Monday around noon at his Marin County home, north of San Francisco. The cause of death is apparently suicide.

He won an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting;” he played a cross-dresser – trying to win back his children – in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” He arrived from a different planet in “Mork ‘n Mindy.” He entertained troops in “Good Morning, Viet Nam.”

His role in real life was one of father, husband, friend and dedicated American. He entertained troops on tour and then left the stage to find the soldiers who could not attend the big show – the cooks in the mess hall, those standing guard, those caring for wounded.

While his wit rivaled lightning speed, his demons could not be held back by wit or willpower. Williams suffered with depression and addiction. He once told Diane Sawyer nothing causes those urgings to “use.” It is just a little voice that suggests one drink, one use, is okay.

When a friend takes his/her own life, we often ask how we  missed the signs. But mental illness, such as depression, is a demon that dresses up well, an actor unto itself. Easy to miss its presence.

Our grief cannot will Robin Williams back among us. But we can seek greater understanding of mental illness, addiction, and remember the man who brought us laughter in a life filled, especially today, with sadness and pain.

Super Moon #2

The second night of magnificent moonshine appeared last night. In case you missed the sky – take a look

(S-R photo: The July 12, 2014, full moon over Spokane was a “super moon.”)

From Africa to America: Ebola

When a disaster or disease outbreak occurs on the other side of the world, we often give the event a passing nod and perhaps a sigh of sadness. But when the event influences our own lives – we take notice.

America is finally taking notice of the deadly outbreak of Ebola in West Africa now that two American aid workers have been infected with the disease – and flown home for treatment.

In one week, Liberia has seen 173 new cases and 93 deaths from Ebola. The outbreak reached Liberia in March, but its government did not declare a full state of emergency until Wednesday. Early on, the government limited journalists’ coverage of the epidemic – allowing denial and fear to contribute to – not address - the problem.

With the Ebola outbreak tantamount to war, the Peace Corps is leaving Liberia, airlines are limiting access. And on the other side of the world, we can only wait.

(S-R photo: Nancy Writebol, with children in Liberia. Writebol is one of two Americans working for a missionary group in Liberia who have been diagnosed with Ebola. She is now in the US receiving treatment.)

Cambodian justice ~ at long last

The film “The Killing Fields” tells the story of the Khmer Rouge and the murdering of Cambodian citizens.  More than 1.7 million people died between 1975 and 1979. After decades of delayed justice, a verdict of guilty has been rendered against two of the most senior surviving leaders. The two men were convicted of murder and extermination, among other crimes. They are sentenced to life in prison. Another trial will follow with charges of genocide.

Eight years ago I met a Cambodian woman in a New Orleans hospital where we were receiving cancer treatment.  Her name was Siconda and she spoke very little English. When I asked her husband some questions, he said, “She lived in the trees for two years in Cambodia. She is now very brave against cancer.”  

Today, a slice of justice in Cambodia is offered for Siconda and for all those who suffered at the hands of the madmen.

(S-R photo: The hearing at a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.) 

Called by name

“What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;” 

So says Shakespeare. But what significance is in our name and how does our name influence how we are perceived?

Last week we were traveling and I learned two children’s names (in different families) and wondered who would be more harassed as they grew up.

The first – a lovely girl of six years old – was named Darling. Yes, it is her name. She is adorable, but how will she survive middle school and will her name allow her to be taken seriously?

The other child, a little blond-haired toddler, belonged to young parents. When a stranger asked them about their child – his age, name, they replied, “His name is Rabbit, and he’s about 15 months old.”

Good luck, children. 

(S-R archive photo)

Love is like…

I met with my favorite 20-something young woman the other day. I was eager to hear details – two months ago I received a text from her reading,  “I met someone.”

Every woman knows exactly what those words mean – a someone worth considering, a person who makes her heart beat differently, a person who may be the one forever and ever.

When I asked her if she had ever felt like this before about any man, she said, “Well, I thought I had, but this feeling is…is… is like being really hungry and then the waiter brings you the most amazing food, food you didn’t even know to ask for!”


We can chase what appears to be the perfect “main course,” but does not satisfy. We can listen to others wax poetic about a “dish,” but find it is not to our liking. Somehow, at the right time, the best “food” is offered when one is ready, when you have not ordered it yourself, it just appears before you – and it is not only appealing – it satisfies, nourishes and delights.

Buon appetito, my friend.  May the feast offer great joy. Text me when dessert arrives.

(S-R photo)

Peace Corps volunteers speak

The spirit – and commitment - of volunteering continues to increase among our nation’s young adults. What happens when a young person commits to years of service in a foreign culture? In their own words

How has your life benefited from volunteer service - anywhere?

(S-R archive photo: This December 1963 file photo shows Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver in his Washington office. His daughter, Maria Shriver, is launching a new U.S. volunteer initiative called the Shriver Corps.)

What are the “Dog Days”?

I love the phrase “Dog Days of summer,” often interpreted as the days when it is so hot, the dogs just laze around. But the real answer is in the sky.

When the brightest star Sirius appeared in the constellation Canis Major (large dog), summer was at its peak.  The period was defined as 20 days before to 20 days after the conjunction of Sirius (the Dog Star) and the sun. The Farmer’s Almanac identifies July 3 through August 11 as Dog Days.

In ancient times, the Romans sacrificed a red dog in April to satisfy the rage of Sirius, believing the star caused the hot, steamy weather.

Thanks to meteorologists, we are enlightened, we let red dogs live – and take sunscreen to the beach instead. Happy Dog Days!

(S-R archive photo: Charles Cowan, far left, stands next to his wife, Iowa King Cowan, and unidentified friends at Liberty Lake on a Sunday in July 1919.)

Remember summer bedtime?

                                 Bed in Summer
                         Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894

In winter I get up at night   
And dress by yellow candle-light.   
In summer, quite the other way,   
I have to go to bed by day.   
I have to go to bed and see          
The birds still hopping on the tree,   
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet   
Still going past me in the street.   
And does it not seem hard to you,   
When all the sky is clear and blue,   
And I should like so much to play,   
To have to go to bed by day?

(S-R archive photo)


Summer night - a poem

Back Yard

Carl Sandburg, 1878 - 1967

Shine on, O moon of summer. 

Shine to the leaves of grass, catalpa and oak, 

All silver under your rain to-night. 

An Italian boy is sending songs to you to-night from an accordion. 

A Polish boy is out with his best girl; they marry next month;

     to-night they are throwing you kisses.

An old man next door is dreaming over a sheen that sits in a

     cherry tree in his back yard. 

The clocks say I must go—I stay here sitting on the back porch drinking

     white thoughts you rain down. 

     Shine on, O moon, 

Shake out more and more silver changes.

(S-R photo: The July 12, 2014, full moon over Spokane was a “super moon.”)

The “f” word

I loved him. He loved me, but when I left for college he couldn’t love me across the miles, so he wrote a good-bye letter, an ugly letter with untruths, cruel comments. I cried and quickly survived. When we met decades later, we laughed about all our teen-age adventures and how we skillfully violated curfews. Our relationship had always been one of easy conversation – any topic, no limits. So when he paused and grew serious, I paid attention. “I have to tell you I always felt terrible about the way I ended…” I interrupted, trying to save him. “Oh! But I have only great memories…you set the standard very high…” He interrupted back and said, “Please! I have to say this.” Then he said he was sorry. I smiled, but knew he wanted more. “Do you need me to say the word?” I asked.  “Yes, I need to hear the words.” And so I said the “f” word: “I forgive you, of course! Of course, I forgive you.” He exhaled audibly, his face relaxed and he said, “Thank you, thank you.”  

Ten years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer, I remembered that “f”-word conversation. I wanted to say I am so sorry to another man I once loved madly. I had told untruths laced with cruel comments when I ended our relationship decades ago. If I was going to die of this dreaded disease, I must tell him the real story. Not wanting to blindside him on the phone, I emailed him – asking for no reply, really. I just wanted him to read my words, to know the truth. He did – and responded with his usual kindness, “I have only great memories of that magical time…”

Recently, the president of the Tacoma School Board, Kurt Miller, offered an apology, 42 years after the incident, to a former teacher. Jim Gaylord was a Washington state history teacher in 1972. He was fired, not because he was a bad teacher or unethical. He was fired for his sexual orientation.

“Forty-two years later, all we can do is to apologize,” Miller said. “We want to give him the dignity back.”

Gaylord said that it felt really good to put a nice ending to an unfortunate story.

Forgiveness is an “f” word  often ignored. We blame and condemn and seldom own up to our bad behavior when we should. Asking for and granting forgiveness takes courage. Not easy - even when we need to forgive ourselves.

Apologizing to an erstwhile love, a former employee or anyone we have hurt, brings healing. So, say you are sorry. And when you do, you just may hear a lovely “f” word in reply.

(S-R archive photo: Gonzaga University)

A summer’s day

A friend hosted a wedding shower the other night. She asked guests to bring their favorite love poem. Do you have one? With all the twittering about, I wonder if lovers still share poetry or even poetic thoughts. Here is a classic:

Shall I Compare Thee, (Sonnet XVIII)
by William  Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?

Thou are more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:

But thy eternal Summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


(S-R photo: Summer sunset at North Idaho’s Priest Lake)


Weather or not

Seems many adults have forgotten their small children in cars lately – hot cars. And the result is deadly.

Spokane will experience hot temperatures in the following week.

What is your reminder to check for your children, pets – all those riding in your vehicle – when you turn off the ignition?

(S-R archive photo)


Keeping the promise

Holocaust survivors ask that history remember their stories. Today, we remember the remarkable life of Yehuda Nir, a psychiatrist and Jewish man who, as a child, escaped certain murder by the Nazis. Nir died on Saturday in his Manhattan home at 84 years old.

He pretended to be a Catholic in German-occupied Poland. His Jewish identity was almost revealed when he asked a woman what day Christmas was on that year. She figured he was not a Catholic. He told her he would expose her affair, if she told the truth about his identity. He had no idea she was having an affair, but she was. She never spoke a word.

Nir, his mother and older sister eventually made their way to Palestine. He came to the United States in 1959 for medical residencies.

As a psychiatrist, Nir brought healing to others who suffered trauma, children and Holocaust survivors as well as their children. Nir served as a chief of child psychiatry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for seven years (1979 to 1986).

As survivors of the Holocaust die, we must continue to listen to their stories - and live their lessons of courage, of reverence for life.

Today, we remember Yehuda Nir.

(S-R archive photo)


James Garner – what a guy

He was smart, sexy and still a regular guy. James Garner, 86, died in Los Angeles at his home on Saturday. His film and television legacy leaves us with entertainment to remember.

Garner starred in more than 50 films. He appeared in comedies, a jederman, everyone, playing a character we either identified with or simply loved. 

Garner was a man who grew up in hardship, leaving home at 14 after a violent episode with his stepmother; but he created a life of opportunity as he took on various jobs: dishwasher, janitor, gas station attendant.  Years later, he returned from his military service in Korea, he worked as a carpet layer for his dad. One day he was driving and saw a sign with the name of an acquaintance – now an agent – so Garner stopped in to chat. Garner was soon hired in a non-speaking role. So began his career.

Garner’s personal approach to acting? “Be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth.” Good advice for any profession. 

(S-R archive photo: James Garner, 2004)

Flight MH 17 passengers remembered

Flight MH17 shot down over the Ukraine carried people who passionately loved life – and some of those people shared their remarkable skills seeking to cure HIV AIDS.

The plane carried world leaders headed for the International AIDS Conference hosted this year in Melbourne. Dutch researcher Joep Lange, who has worked in AIDS research and treatment since 1983, was on board with his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren.

Media reports state nearly 100 passengers who were AIDS advocates, leaders, and humanitarians were on flight MH17 headed to the conference.

When tragedy so encompassing overwhelms us, I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s mandate not to retreat from life, but to passionately persevere:

“On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend's life also, in our own, to the world.”  

We pause in solidarity with all families, friends and leaders who grieve this unfathomable tragedy. May those attending the AIDS conference in Melbourne hold the memory of their colleagues in their hearts as they continue their commitment to ending HIV/AIDS, fulfilling the promise of friends' lives, too.

(S-R photo)

More, again, still - enough

The desire to retain position at the cost of victims continues within the Catholic Church. St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John C. Nienstedt refuses to resign while the scandal surrounding him continues.

Former chancellor, Jennifer M. Hasleberger, filed an affidavit claiming while the archbishop was informed of pedophile priests, he did nothing. Haselberger’s documents also claim the archbishop, “…declined to report suspected abusers to civil authorities; failed to monitor sex offenders in the clergy; and in various ways violated the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.”

Violence against children and other vulnerable people is a crime. The Church is morally and legally responsible to protect those persons it claims to shepherd. Enough.

(S-R archive photo: St. Peter's Square, Vatican City)

The children must die…no more

The children who are deemed mingi children in Omo Valley, Ethiopia must die.  Mingi children are those born out of wedlock, or have their top teeth appear before the bottom teeth or other defined situations are considered mingi; their very lives bring a curse upon the tribe. Killing these children – through suffocation, drowning or starvation - has been the practice in the remote Omo Valley in Ethiopia – until two years ago when tribesman Lale Labuko was able to convince the tribe that the time of mingi was over.

Labuko worked with American John Rowe, a retired executive who traveled to the Omo Valley to photograph the remote community. After years of serving as Rowe’s guide, Labuko confided in the mingi secret and asked for Rowe’s help in stopping the practice.

The two men created the Omo Child organization saving 40 beautiful children from certain death. The heroic work continues…

Mama Birds

The Mama Bird arrived late in the season. She feverishly created a nest in our impatiens plant that hangs in a basket outside our front door. And then: we opened the front door. Mama Bird flew at us and squawked wildly.  “Settle down!” I implored.  I assured her she would be fine. I, too, arrived at motherhood later than my peers. “You’ll do fine. More life experience, broader world view.” Now I exit quietly and she stays in her nest.

I did peek in yesterday when Mama Bird had left for coffee or perhaps meeting up at the bird bath with her friends. And alas, a little baby bird peered back. Hopefully, Mama Bird knows where the best baby bird grub lives…

A high school friend arrived home to Minnesota earlier this year with her three little daughters. She worked tirelessly – for years and years – to adopt them and bring them home from Latin America. She is 60, and the girls will soon be on the brink of puberty. “You'll do fine. More life experience, broader world view.”

That Mama knows the rewards of working hard to build her nest.

When we are young, we have plans and naively believe life will unfold accordingly. Life offers different timelines, still we persevere. And if we pause, we really can hear the birds sing. 

(S-R archive photo: three baby Masked Lovebirds, Singapore)

“But who wears the dress?!”

Spent time with two sweet girls this week – 7 and 10 years old. We talked about the summer and how we are all busy with weddings. I attended two weddings of my husband’s colleagues. One couple now has a blended family with six children. The recessional from the ceremony was the theme from “The Brady Bunch.” Everyone giggled, cooed and cried.

The little girls told me of one upcoming wedding they will attend: “Our great cousin! And she is marrying a girl.” I commented, yes, girls sometimes marry other girls and boys sometimes marry other boys. When I asked if they were excited about the wedding, they both looked perplexed.

“Cathy, we have a question about our ‘great’s wedding’ ”

Hmm. I thought this conversation could get interesting.

“What is the question?”

“Well, if there are two girls getting married, who wears the dress?!”

I laughed. So sweet. Still, weddings come down to fashion curiosity.

“Well, you will have to go and see! Maybe both of them will wear dresses – or neither or just one of them. They can wear what they want,” I said.

The little one smiled: “Oh, I hope both of them do, that would be best.”

(S-R archive photo)

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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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