I suppose all of us deal with grief and loss in different ways. For me, for some reason I’ve never understood, snippets of songs come into my crazy head in times of loss. It happened when my father died in 2002, and it has happened over and over again throughout the years. So perhaps it’s no surprise that on Saturday, June 4th when Polly Welsh called to tell me that Debbie Mathis had passed after her long battle with cancer, it happened again. The words of a song I hadn’t thought of in years hit me, and I smiled.
The song is called “Beautiful Sadness,” and it goes like this:
You’re lovely to remember
And looking back I’m feeling
Like I’m walking very slowly, through a soft and misty rain
And a beautiful sadness comes over me
I first knew Debbie when she worked for Brian Center, back in the day, as they say, and more recently and much better when she joined the Lutheran Services for Aging (LSA) family. We all remember people differently I suppose, based on how we knew them. I knew Debbie as a loyal client, good friend, and lovely woman in every sense of the words.
But what I remember most about her is her passion for end-of-life issues. Debbie and I talked often about advance directives, dignity in dying, and end-of-life care. Just a few weeks before her passing, Debbie called to ask if I’d teach an end-of-life care session for the LSA family from across the state. “Of course,” I said, “anything you want.” I didn’t even know at the time that Debbie was facing her own end-of-life journey, and, typical for Debbie in her selfless way, she never mentioned it. Perhaps it’s ironic, and very telling about Debbie’s generosity and graciousness, that two days before the scheduled session, my “church mother” from my teen years passed away, and her funeral was scheduled for the same day as the training. I called Debbie and began to explain what had happened, how important my church mother had been to me at a tough time in my life, and how I was so conflicted about the funeral being on the same day as the training session. As I nervously blathered on and on, Debbie, sweetly, cut me off and said, “There’s no decision here to fret about. You have to go to that funeral, and we’ll just reschedule the session.” We never got to do that, but Debbie, we are holding that session this fall in your honor and your memory.
I also remember Debbie from years of association conventions. She would ALWAYS find me, no matter how crowded the hotel or how busy she was, and she’d always update me on how our latest LSA project together was going. She never attended even one of my boring lectures without finding me to say how much she enjoyed it and how much she had learned. And she had that smile I can still see.
Ted Goins tells me that nearly 550 people packed the church for Debbie’s funeral service. I’m not surprised. He also said that the Debbie I knew as calm, sweet, and passionate about the elderly was also “a rock.” “She was always here,” he said, “calm and unflustered and always had her eye on the mission of LSA. She worked and really didn’t miss a beat during her three-year battle with cancer, until the very end. One week before she passed, she was sitting in her bed lamenting how many emails she had that needed answering.” That sounds just like Debbie.
Ted also said that he would gladly have made Debbie his health care and financial power of attorney and would have trusted any decision she made. I know, given Debbie’s passion for end-of-life issues, that she would have considered that the highest of compliments and honors.
The outpouring of sadness, respect and affection for Debbie has come from across the state and nation to her family and the LSA family. She leaves a legacy of family, friends and thousands of seniors whose lives she touched and will continue to touch long after we are all gone. She championed LSA’s New Pathways culture change initiative, and she pushed for LSA to rebuild the old Lutheran Home-Winston Salem in a socioeconomically depressed area of town because she thought those folks, nearly all indigent, deserved a better place to live. LSA broke ground on that new facility the same week Debbie passed. And, Ted says, “Her fingerprints are all over the beautiful new neighborhood design facility called Trinity Grove, in Wilmington.” They are also all over the lives of those of us who were blessed to have known her.
Another song that comes to me now, as I sit and write this tribute to my good friend, goes like this: “I wanna know, the things they told us way back then are really so. I wanna make a little mark before I go. I wanna fly.”
My dearest Debbie, rest assured you made a mark before you went. In the words of our Lord, “Well done, my good and faithful servant, well done.” Now you are flying.