I thought I was the teacher. The mentor.
Now I know better. Since Monday, when I picked up the newspaper and gave the obit list a quick check.
“Eleanor Flower.” Her name was there and it sucked the air from the room.
I was not shocked but that doesn’t stop the body feeling numb or the sad murmuring, “No. No-no-no. No.”
Eleanor has been writing to me about this day for a few years. About dying … and even more about living.
Going through those emails today, swallowing chunks of emotion, I realize she was the teacher.
This began several years ago, when I was still with the local paper.
Eleanor, living with husband Don on the North Side of Ottawa, applied to join the paper’s Write Team, a group of local voices writing columns for a six-month “term.”
She sent samples and her “voice” was special. Someone you’re comfortable with at the kitchen table. You listen when they speak.
I encouraged and guided her. Everyone needs an editor.
I now see she became my editor … a coach who helps build steam and purpose.
I now see the pattern in her emails. She shared bits of life, applauded my columns. She dissected life, often pointing to the needs of others. Then… she pushed me to write about them, for them.
She’d sign off with a single word: “Hugs.”
Eleanor was inspiring. She weathered storms that rage in all our lives.
She lived with her son for a year, caring for him while he slowly died of AIDS.
She lost her husband, Don, of 66 years and wrestled with the decision to sell their home, leave Ottawa and friends to live with her daughter in Oregon.
“I have some big decisions to make and I can't take lots of time doing it,” she told me. “I picked up my small wooden cross to help me. … I will be 88 in Dec. How much longer can I live?”
She discovered the personal release that comes with writing. (Why I push people to write.)
In a 2014 guest column, she eulogized her father, Carlo Santucci. He came to America as a 10-year-old master of violin and accordion. He brought the love of music to Naplate and the Ottawa area.
She wrote how she played a piano song by heart for her dad and he cried.
And the piano lesson when she banged the keys and cried.
“Why did I shed those tears?” she wrote. “I knew I would never ever play like Dad.
“Years later as an RN in charge, it was December and I asked my dad if he would come at Christmas, stroll through the halls/rooms and entertain the patients. Everyone knew my dad, and he knew them.
“When we completed the entire fourth floor of the hospital, I took him to the elevator. He had tears running down his face. He looked at me and asked: ‘How could you have spent your entire life taking care of sick people? Don't ever ask me to do this again. I can't do your work.’
“He cried tears for all the people he knew. It was then that I knew for sure in which direction Father had directed my life. It wasn't in music. The Heavenly Father directed me into nursing to care for the ill.
“After many years, I can fully understand my tears and my father's tears.”
Eleanor wrote a lot about being a registered nurse. She taught “Death and Dying” classes on the college level. She retired but never stopped being a nurse.
With her daughter in Oregon, she enjoyed her view of Mount Hood, “trees taller than telephone poles,” and a senior center with cheap lunches, dances, a book section and most important, a writing club. Of course, she joined.
In 2018 she told me: “Am having a breast biopsy tomorrow, not worried at my age, what is to worry? That I will die? I am waiting for that and it is ok! I miss Don.”
She also noted she danced once with a man at the center.
“Then went into the bathroom and cried, haven’t danced since,” she said.
That biopsy opened the door to the eventual. She made it to age 90.
Eleanor, the nurse, knew how to deal with pain. Probably why she liked to make people laugh with stories … or goofy stuff she’d find online.
She shared a list of “random thoughts as we age” and noted she loved this one: “Chocolate comes from cocoa which is a tree... that makes it a plant which means ... chocolate is salad.”
She also sent a list of “powerful short stories.” This one jumps out now:
“Today, after I watched my dog get run over by a car, I sat on the side of the road holding him and crying. And just before he died, he licked the tears off my face.”
Eleanor often told me my columns made her cry, as a compliment. Now, as I write this, I feel like I am holding that dog.
I will miss her voice … her gentle goodbyes … her closing advice to us all:
LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the retired managing editor of The Times. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.