Fields of Gold

In June, I determinedly announced that this was going to be the ‘summer of Louise’. Unexpectedly in my hometown for the long summer months ahead, I was eager to spend precious time with my university aged son and daughter , take short trips to visit out of town friends, lounge in the parks at summer festivals, outdoor concerts, impromptu dinners, the promise of some time for deep introspection and the shifting towards the next important phase of my life. All this was going to be punctuated with the visiting of my dear friend Danielle. A friend since high school, Danielle’s life of adventure and accomplishment had taken her from undercover work as an RCMP officer in British Columbia, to working in orphanages in Thailand and Malaysia, travel throughout much of the world, media work with the RCMP, and policy analysis in Ottawa, now her summer was also anchored in our hometown. Five years ago, this phenomenal woman was given the most cruel news – a diagnosis of ALS ( Lou Gehrig’s disease).

We had kept in touch sporadically since high school, sometimes going 2 – 3 years without hearing from each other. About 12 years ago she contacted me, we enjoyed a rare long visit, reconnected, and determined to stay in better touch.  And we did. Emails, visits on the odd occasion we were in the same city, letters and photos. As the disease ravaged her body, Danielle’s big life was increasingly diminished in mobility although never in scope. She may have become less mobile, lost her independent living, but never her expectations for herself or others. As the disease unjustly took over her body, Danielle had no option but to move back to our hometown and be in the care of her extraordinary family. And yet, her  joie de vivre was not lost. For ALS robs your body of mobility and function, but not your mind. Your essence is left intact, to witness your physical decay. When I was in town, we would go out – her hands/arms were the first to be rendered useless; initially she could walk aided, then needed assistance with a wheelchair, too soon could not leave her wheelchair, speaking became difficult and finally no longer able to breathe on her own, was mostly confined to her family home – a sanctuary they created for her with gardens, paintings, a vibrant blue Buddha, photos, colours, laughter, underscored by all  the traditional and non-traditional medical communities options available.

A wonderful and true friend Barb, part of our Grade 10 triumvirate, was also keeping in very close contact. In mid-June, Barb and I began our soon to become ritual of Sunday morning coffee with Danielle. Barb and I would meet at Starbucks, get Danielle’s favourite Americano, and head to Danielle’s for our weekly visit.  Between offering Danielle sips of coffee through a straw that one of us would hold up to her, the three of us laughed hysterically, talked in hushed tones, cried together, discussed our pressing concerns – in some ways things had not changed since Grade 10! Barb and I also continued to visit Danielle on our own. And as July progressed, these visits became more frequent, and longer. The last Thursday in July I took dinner for all of us, and spent a luxurious visit with Danielle and her family. Even after many hours I had a very difficult time pulling myself away.  I was on my way to NYC for a week and was really going to miss her! As I walked home, I reminisced about how the summer was unfolding and realized that it had become the ‘summer of Danielle’.

I landed in Toronto after my week away, to an urgent phone call from Barb; our Danielle was in crisis. Learning she had been taken to the hospital, we waited throughout Friday for news, and Saturday received a call on behalf of Danielle, asking Barb and I to come to say good-bye. And we did. Our final intimate moments will remain private,  but I will reveal that in this most darkest of times, Danielle still remained the truest and sweetest of friends. In the worst moment of her life, at the instant she knew that it was her time to die, she looked to all of us who loved her and gave us the opportunity for a bit of peace.

An architect of her life from the beginning, Danielle managed her final years with the same tenacity and heart that had propelled her throughout the world. She not only fought to live, she fought off death. An incredible amount of strength that I will forever be in awe of. Courage, heart, truth, that resulted in an example of how it is to really live in this world. Nora Ephron determined at the end, that she wanted to ‘write her own story’. And so it is with Danielle.   Thus, on this Sunday morning, I am sitting in Starbuck’s, having an Americano, missing her greatly and deeply. Treasuring in the privilege of my summer of Danielle.

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19 thoughts on “Fields of Gold

  1. Rosa says:

    First, I must say I am touched by this incredible woman who witnessed her life unfold the way it did. It only reinforces my knowledge that those of us, who have the ability to make a difference in some minuscule way, should take that opportunity with both hands. As my summer unfolded itself, it brought a great deal of self discovery and appreciation for the little things in life – for this is what makes me content with myself and allows me to just “be.” The human ability to flow like a river (sometimes bashing up against stone and other times gracefully flowing) shows the resilience of man kind. Thank you, and my heart goes out to you both.

  2. Barb G. says:

    Dearest Louise,

    I am so deeply moved by this eloquent tribute, for our wonderful friend Danielle.

    As I get older, I aspire to become more wise, and then something “throws me for a loop”! I am so humbled by this summer. I have seen the extremes of life, celebration, love and death, in such a short time.

    Danielle’s joie de vivre IS unsurpassed. Although her humour and silliness were some of my favourite qualities, her courage left me in total awe. Her illness was the very antithesis of her being, yet she incessantly faced it head-on and never once let it control her.

    I am grateful for numerous things this summer:

    -Danielle’s friendship, love of life and generosity; she was EVERYONE’S best friend, yet made time for each and every person till the very end…

    -the intuition we were given in order to act rapidly, and not miss a moment with her, or the final picture of the three of us,

    -the chance to say good-bye and to express my feelings, what a selfless act on her part.

    I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to travel this road with you Louise. You are so very compassionate and kind. Danielle told me a long time ago, that she didn’t want pity or people to bring her down. I truly believe that she found our stories, repartée and banter uplifting (and distracting in a good way).

    I thank you for this beautiful homage. What an appropriate gift! You expressed what I could not.

    To coin a Danielleism:

    “ Kissy, kissy”,

    Barb G.

    • Louise Fagan says:

      Barb, You have written so beautifully here. Thank you for your additions to my thoughts – you are absolutely right about it all. It has been a gift to share this journey with you.

      As an addendum to yesterday, this morning I have arrived at Starbuck’s and there is a new young ‘barista’ working behind the counter. We chatted while my Americano was being prepared and she stuck out her hand with a big smile and said ” Hi, my name’s Danielle, what’s yours?”. This is the absolute truth.

      • Barb G. says:

        Thank you Louise, I too still keep seeing daily reminders, in new situations…she keeps on giving and loving.

    • Louise Fagan says:

      Thank you so much Joelle. I am acutely aware that I am telling my story of Danielle and had some trepidation writing it, that I would be encroaching on your’s and your family’s story. This is also why I didn’t use Danielle’s last name in case it was seen as too invasive. If you feel it appropriate I would love to put Danielle’s full name next to her picture. I will leave that for you to decide.

      • Joelle says:

        Deepest apologies Louise.. I somehow am just reading this now. Of course, adding her full name is not a problem to a perfectly captured portrayal of how she touched you and those in your circle.

        I still miss her most days and have had some incredible “coincidences” since her passing… we will always love her and laugh/smile when thinking of her.

  3. Norma Yau says:

    Louise – the journey to one’s death can sometimes make the people who journey with them reap so many benefits. A wonderful story about wonderful friends. May you find peace in your memories of your friendship. Hugs.

  4. mary white says:

    What an astonishingly accurate portrayal of the Danielle we knew and loved for all the abilities, courage and attitude you describe. She leaves a cavernous hole in many lives. Beautifully written Louise.

    Mary White

  5. Polline Coulombe says:

    My dear Louise

    What a beautiful tribute to our Danielle and how wonderfully you have managed to convey your story. I felt like I was there. Danielle had the spirit of a lion and I know she has touched many many lives and changed some too. I am blessed and grateful to be her aunt and to have watched her grow into womanhood. We now have this loving angel looking out for us. I miss her so very much.

    • Louise Fagan says:

      Polline! Thank you. You are absolutely right, she did have the spirit of a lion. I like that analogy. She was so grateful for her family – you each cared for her with an amazing combination of ferocity and sweetness. You are truly all examples of how to love.

  6. Linda Regnier says:

    What a beautiful tribute to a very special lady. She will be missed by all. She is an angel now watching over all of us.

  7. Suzanne Efford says:

    Dear Louise

    Thank you so much for this beautiful tribute to Danielle… She will live forever in many hearts especially ours..and Thank you_ and Barb for having been her dearest friends…you had her smiling even after you had gone from the house…so many also came from Ottawa RCMP detachments.. Lily, Caroline, Mary, and Caroline R. …and dearest Heather who was with her to the end… we miss her so terribly.. a big hole to fill each day… again my heartfelt Thanks.. Sue and Danny.. (her parents)

  8. Barb G. says:

    Hi Louise,

    I came here tonight to reread your tribute.
    WOW a year has passed since we began our Sunday ritual!
    I still think of Danielle, her family, and our visits all the time…and I laugh at the good memories.

    Keeping the spirit alive…

    Barb

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