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Honoring her final vote

Widower of Obama supporter stunned by note from the candidate

Before Janet Westbrook died last month of cancer, she managed to fulfill one of her last wishes: to cast a vote for Barack Obama.

Thanks to the Internet, a picture of the South Hill resident holding her ballot reached way beyond Spokane, prompting words of encouragement from as far away as Germany. The notes kept coming even after her death on Oct. 27. Last Friday, her husband, Tom, opened an envelope from an unfamiliar Chicago address, and was stunned.

“Dear Janet,” began the letter typed on Obama Biden stationery. “I heard that you’ve been supporting our campaign in Washington, and I saw the picture of you with your absentee ballot. …Words cannot express how honored I am that you would think of me, and be so focused on our country’s future at this difficult time in your life. …You, perhaps more than most people, can step back from the day-to-day and take the long view of where we’re headed as a nation and a people. Because of this, your support is all the more moving, and I will do my best to live up (sic) the faith you have placed in me.

“Sincerely, Barack Obama”

On Tuesday, as voters across the country were deciding the presidential race, Tom Westbrook sat in his living room and marveled at how his wife’s last wish took on a life of its own.

When the doctors sent Janet Westbrook home to hospice care late this summer, after her cancer treatments weren’t working, she said there were two things she hoped to be able to do: Vote for Obama, and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in December.

She was in the final stages of peritoneal cancer. “We’ll see,” was all the doctors could say.

When daughter Sara Westbrook took leave from her job as a police lieutenant in Portland to help with Janet’s care, she kept out-of-town family and close friends informed of Janet’s progress with an Internet journal, or blog. In mid-October, when Spokane County ballots arrived, Sara was able to write about one of her mother’s wishes coming true.

“We all gathered around and watched her vote,” Tom Westbrook said. “We were kidding her about what a fine guy McCain was, how she should consider him.”

But Janet, who had gone with Tom to see Michelle Obama at the Fox Theater and attended their precinct caucuses for Obama at Roosevelt Elementary School, wasn’t about to be deterred. The former Department of Social and Health Services caseworker believed the nation was on the wrong track, he said, and she liked Obama’s stances on social justice issues.

A highlight of Sara’s blog the next day was a picture of a smiling Janet, holding up the ballot she’d marked and mailed the day it arrived.

A longtime family friend in Minnesota who is active in Democratic campaigns saw the picture and attached it, along with Janet’s story, to some e-mails she sent to other Obama supporters. The picture kept making the rounds.

The Westbrooks started getting e-mails of encouragement – “You go girl” notes, Sara called them – from people they’d never met around the country, and even from overseas. The notes continued to come in, even after Janet passed away on Oct. 27 and was celebrated at an overflowing memorial service on Oct. 29.

Two days later, the letter arrived from Obama. The signature looks real, Tom Westbrook said, although campaigns have machines that can imitate a signature. The letter is typed, and while it could have been typed by anyone, it seems to have the tone of someone dictating thoughts rather than creating a form letter, he added.

Perhaps Obama, whose own grandmother was dying of cancer at the time the letter was sent, was moved by the picture, he said. “He’s been down this road, also.”

Regardless of the letter’s origins, Westbrook said he read the letter “joyously,” just like the notes from strangers who saw his wife’s picture on the Internet.

“Because other people know her, I can share her with others. It’s a spirit of hope,” he said Tuesday afternoon.

Although Obama wouldn’t be declared the winner for about six more hours, Westbrook was relatively confident of the outcome. Had Janet lived to see it, he said, she too would be joyous, and hopeful.

Contact Jim Camden at (509) 459-5461 or jimc@spokesman.com.

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