I started writing this on June 17, 2016, our 44th wedding anniversary, as the memories came flowing back in waves of sorrow, sadness, joy and thankfulness.
I have participated in a number of GriefShare and spousal support groups since Donna's death on Dec. 12, 2015 and realized I have had it easier than most of the other participants. I want to catalog the ways so I can give thanks and in times of my deepest grief and sorrow, I can count the blessings.
Editor's noteTwo weeks ago, as we were preparing to launch Last Kiss, Willie Nelson released a song that is chilling in the message of hope if offers those grieving the loss of a spouse.
"Something You Get Through."
If you haven't heard it, I encourage you to check it out. youtube.com/watch?v=rdtx-pxjX8A is one of the places where you can find it. Or Google Willie Nelson Something You Get Through.
Meanwhile, after the series began, we heard from a Bartlett reader named Joanne who thought a 2017 song, "If We Were Vampires," by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit could well be the theme song for Last Kiss.
I listened to it, and I agree. It's a loving reminder for those of us still lucky enough to have our spouse.
You can find it at youtube.com/watch?v=fyiEJaf-IzE, or Google Jason Isbell If We Were Vampires.
If you have other songs to suggest, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- John Lampinen, April 21, 2018
We had our wills, trusts, medical powers of attorney all in order.
We had lived well by most comparisons, traveled to 48 states and a few foreign countries and were financially secure but not rich. We have had supportive families, church, neighbors, community and co-workers.
We had been relatively healthy, raised three wonderful children and lived to see our children graduate from college and become successful in their chosen professions. Donna lived to see our son Matt and our daughter Beth marry their two exceptional partners and start families of their own. She almost got to see our grandson Samuel Gilson born. She knew Samuel's gender before anyone else (except the ultrasound technician).
Donna was diagnosed in October 2014 with stage 4 lung cancer, 14 months before death. This allowed Donna time to:
• Visit with her brother and sisters and for them to come visit her.
• Visit Matt, his wife Cathy, and their children Charlotte, Amelia and Schroeder in Houston.
• Make Cabbage Patch dolls for each of the grandchildren.
• Teach her husband some basic survival skills.
• And allow me time to visit the cemetery and two funeral homes, draft a eulogy, select music and plan a funeral without her knowing.
I retired three weeks before her diagnosis so I got to spend the final 15 months with her, though I think she may not have thought of that as being a blessing.
Donna died at age 66½, which seems way too young, but she survived 18 years after breast cancer. She got to retire on her own timetable after teaching around 10,000 unique seventh and eighth graders at Mead Junior High School in Elk Grove Village.
In Donna's final 14-month journey from diagnosis to death, she maintained a positive, almost optimistic, attitude that she could be in that 1 percent that survive that terminal diagnosis for five years. Two months before death, Donna agreed to a new three-year term as an elder on the Board of Session and six days before death she helped light the Advent candle with Daniel and Jennifer.
It was only in her last six weeks that she acknowledged that she wouldn't celebrate the next Christmas but alerted the family to prepare them and prompted Matt and family to journey to Elk Grove Village to share Thanksgiving together.
I recently learned that on Nov. 23, 2015, she asked her doctor for his prognosis. When he told her six months to a year, she pushed him because she knew that was too optimistic. He then told her three weeks. She lasted 19 days.
Donna was strong and self-reliant. She was able to stay out of the hospital, nursing homes and hospice. When she was provided with palliative care through a nurse practitioner, she said, "I think this is just before hospice, and I'm not ready for that" (hospice). She had the strength and willpower to walk the length of our house an hour before she died.
While she wasn't able to die in her sleep, she was in control until the end, telling me "No!!!!" when I suggested calling an ambulance to help her breathing. She died in her own bedroom in my arms in enough pain and discomfort that all of us would be willing to let her exit her earthly body to find rest in God's arms.
No one can ever be completely prepared for the death of a spouse or loved one but we can be prepared to make the transition easier for the survivors.
Make sure you have prepared your wills, medical powers of attorney and conveyed your desires to your family.
Keep all of your vaccinations up to date. Wear seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Don't die a preventable death.
Record and share all of your passwords with your significant other.
Push your doctors for an honest prognosis. Share that prognosis with your loved ones. Almost everyone in the support groups I have attended was surprised, even shocked, at the deaths of their loved ones -- even after years of debilitating diseases, even being in a coma.
We are all mortal and modern medicine has its limitations. A cardiac nurse told our group her "husband always came home from the hospital, until the time when they told her he wouldn't be coming home."
Find an intelligent, caring partner to share your joys, sorrows and your life.
Tell or show your partner that you love him or her with a kiss, a touch, a flower or some special kindness every day. Don't eat all of your partner's favorite candy. (I ate all of the Baby Ruth chocolate bars in a Halloween variety pack and caught someone's rare ire.)
Cry a lot when you miss them.
Donna's last Christmas letter
Donna finished the Christmas letter (below) Thursday, Dec. 10 and was in the process of mailing it out when she died at 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015.
Visitation was Friday, Dec. 18th and funeral Saturday, Dec. 19th at The Oaks Funeral Home in Itasca.
Internment, was at Nicolet Memorial Gardens, Green Bay, Wisconsin Thursday, Dec. 24, 2015.
Sorry for the sorrowful news but rejoice that Donna is without pain or suffering and probably already measuring the angels for new robes. Ted Gault
From our house to your house,
Once again we are in the holiday season. It always seems to show up way before we are ready!
The family continues to be active and busy. Matt, Cathy and the girls still live in Houston. We are continually hearing about new and exciting activities in which they are involved.
Charlotte is in first grade and is becoming a wonderful reader. She is very proud of her brand new library card and is anxious to read to whomever will listen. Mia is our little adventurer. Even at four years old, there is no mountain too high to explore, and everything is new and exciting.
Beth has mostly "retired" although she is still working on a consulting basis for the company.
Chad is keeping very busy with his business. Daniel whose favorite word in any conversation is "why," is a very inquisitive 4-year-old. Everything needs to be checked out, questioned and taken apart.
Cora is 2 going on 12. There is no way that she is going to be left behind by anyone. Whatever the rest can do, she can do too. Just ask her!
In April, the kids are expecting an addition to the family. Everyone Is excited about the arrival of a new baby.
Jenny continues to teach high school science and in all of her spare time is still remodeling her house. Although it has been a lot of work, it is turning out beautifully. She is still finding all sorts of interesting and curious things as she opens walls to add insulation and other necessary upgrades.
In June, I retired after subbing for over 29 years. Although I enjoyed working with the junior high students for so many years, when school bells rang this fall, I was just as happy to stay home.
Unfortunately, Ted and I have not been able to enjoy our retirement. As I mentioned last year, I had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
The first regiment seemed to be successful and then unfortunately midway thru, I apparently developed immunity to the drugs. So we tried a second regiment. Not successful. So we tried immunotherapy, supposed to be better even than chemo. High hopes, no success.
We have just started a fourth regiment. However, the cancer has progressed sufficiently that hopes are not high.
Because of the metastasizing, the doctor has given a worst-case scenario of only about a month and best case of around a year. Personally, I'm holding out for best case scenario and just for giggles I'm going to add a little extra time. After all, if you are going to dream, dream big. Until the last month, I was tolerating treatment well. I have just recently had problems eating and my vocal cord is paralyzed. Thus, whispering only; at least it's quiet around here.
Enough sadness from here and may this season bring happiness and health to each of you. Have the very best New Year.
Ted and Donna Gault
The eulogy Ted delivered for Donna
Thank you for taking time out of your life to travel and visit with us and I know this is not an easy or fun thing to do. You honor Donna and our entire family with your presence.
I'm Ted Gault, Donna's husband of 43 wonderful years and thought I might be able to introduce some part of Donna that you didn't know.
I did not let her know I was writing a eulogy because she wouldn't have allowed me to praise her and would have made me rewrite it many, many, many times
Donna Rifleman was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the second oldest of five children. Donna's mother worked at the Brown County Public Library and later taught at Washington Jr High School.
When Donna was 13 years old, her sister Carol was born and I think this was when Donna developed and perfected a capacity for unconditional love for her baby sister Carol and learned what it takes to be a loving parent.
I met Donna when we were both transfer students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
After dating Donna for one year, I knew she was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and I asked her to marry me. She agreed and we married 20 months later after I finished graduate school.
Donna wanted to have kids right after we got married but I convinced her to wait a couple years while she taught as the librarian at Dundee Crown High School.
She retired from full time teaching when we had Matthew, followed by Elizabeth and then Jennifer. When Jennifer started first grade, Donna started substitute teaching.
I read recently that there are two types of Love, Conditional Love and Unconditional Love.
Conditional Love can be -- you give me that Christmas present and I will love you, or give me good grades, or money or if you love me and I will love you back.
Unconditional love is usually compared to a mother's love of her children. This is not to say you love everything that person or child does, but you still love that person.
It was my experience that Donna Marie Gault had an unconditional love of all of her children.
This includes her three babies, their spouses, 5½ grandchildren, her Daisy Scouts and Brownies, Girl Scouts and Sunday school Students, Students she taught at East High School in Green Bay, Irving Crown High School in Dundee and over 10,000 7th and 8th graders at Mead Junior High School. She had an unconditional love of Conant High School Band students even when they damaged their band uniform.
Donna has been the wardrobe Mom to the drama club at Wethersfield High School where Jenny teaches. Donna substituted for almost every teacher in every subject except physical education at Mead Junior High over 29 years.
She was flexible on rules that changed over the years. However, she had two rules that were unbending --- No gum chewing and you may not rock back on only two legs of your chair.
Donna subbed almost exclusively at Mead Jr High and according to the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System, was there over 75 percent of the time.
In the 1997-98 school year, she only missed two days: the first day of school and one day when our telephone was out of order.
The first time she called in sick, principal Bob Wulffen decided it must be something serious and suggested they lower the flag to half-staff.
When Sandy Brust, the school secretary saw her in the hallway the next day and asked if Donna had a "little flu," Donna replied that she had a little breast cancer surgery.
That was 18 years ago. Donna called in sick for only the second time this last May as she was fighting lung cancer.
During the 46 years I loved Donna, she never ever spoke in an uncaring fashion about any of those children. She didn't always love the things they did, but she never stopped loving them. As Donna realized she was losing her battle with cancer, she lamented that her grandchildren would not remember her.
I tried to reassure her that the way she raised our kids and how she impacted her other kids and students, they would be the beneficiaries of her unconditional love.
When Donna was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 lung cancer, I prayed that God would take me instead.
I couldn't even conceive of our family being without Donna, who did so much every day to contribute to everyone else's well-being.
God did give Donna 14 months to teach her couch potato husband how to be more self-reliant.
I will miss her beyond any words could express. God has called her home to be a seamstress to the angels.
Donna was very strong in every sense of the word. Strong willed, determined, and hardworking were all appropriate adjectives. She would not ever take my arm walking on snow or ice, commenting that when I slipped, I would pull just her down.
When the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution was being discussed, she didn't think women should have to bring themselves down to man's level simply for the sake of equality.
And anyone who knows Donna's daughters or daughter-in-law knows the definition of strong women.
As lung cancer sapped Donna's strength, she was forced to use a walker or wheelchair in the last two months. In that period, her vocal cords were paralyzed and she could not speak above a whisper.
Yet, she fought on and never lost her determination even when she knew she would not win the final battle.
THE LAST KISS SERIES
■ Patty & Corey: The Heartbreak.
■ Diana & Joe: A widow's advice: Embrace bereavement, don't avoid it A Straight From the Source story.
■ Janice & Joe A story of someday A Straight From the Source story
■ Janice & Joe Five lessons I've learned so far A Straight From the Source story
■ Patty & Corey: The Love Story.
■ Patricia & Tim: A widow cherishes the memories of her warrior A Straight From the Source story
■ Bill & Marian: A love that lives in dreams A Straight From the Source story
■ Dennis & Maggie: I reread her letters, I played her favorite songs A Straight From the Source story
■ Dennis & Maggie: Just Let Me Talk A Straight From the Source story
■ Patty & Corey: A widow wishes she had asked for one more kiss.
■ Patty & Corey: A widow's mission to sustain her husband's barbershop.
■ Donald & Helen: A widower's essay becomes his daughter's short film A Straight From the Source story
■ Susan & Guy: A widow's guide to dealing with the loss of a spouse A Straight From the Source story
■ Ted & Donna A widower's plan to count his blessing at times of deepest grief A Straight From the Source story
■ Fred & Beverly: Unique and Devastating Loss (by Wifeless) A Straight From the Source story
■ Last Kiss Epilogue: Some widows heal from grief by healing others
■ Ken & Michele: A widower's story of a loving couple's life A Straight From the Source story
For more on the series, please click here.