Lum: Hard goodbyes
My buddy Gunilla Asher died just before dawn on Monday morning.
She used to say, “I can’t believe that I’m going to die before you do,” and I’d list all the things that are wrong with me and would say, “If I’m not first — which I probably will be — you know I’ll be right behind you.”
The last time I saw her was Saturday afternoon — she was getting a lung drained at the hospital, one of the many beastly procedures she had to put up with on top of blood transfusions and chemo and all the other cancer-related atrocities. She had just received a new chemo dose on Friday —“How was it?” “Too soon to tell.” — and she looked great.
“You look terrific,” I said. “I think you’re going to win,” and she laughed, knowing exactly what I meant, that I would probably die first — that is, if there were any fairness to the scheme of things in our universe. I am 77, and Gunilla was only 42. “Fair” isn’t part of the equation.
For the drain procedure, Gunilla was in outpatient surgery with a tube in her back filling a liter bottle with toxic body fluids. Dr. Fisher — a bright and funny man who brought to mind Klinger in the “M.A.S.H” TV series —worked together with his four or five assistants in harmony and expertise like the proverbial well-oiled machine.
They were all excited to have gotten only a liter (often it was two per lung cavity) and in all, it was an inspiring event. There was no sense of the “we’re the experts, you’re the patient” hierarchy, but, rather, a sense of them all being in this together, hoping for the best and not ruling anything out. They treated Gunilla with honesty, respect and a few dabs of kidding around, just as I would have wanted if I were in her place.
Everybody is different, so there’s a real art to the patient relationship.
I had already seen this in the oncology department, where I’d go to visit Gunilla during chemo treatments and blood transfusions. Nancee and Siobhan were more like close cousins than health care people. I don’t know how people can take those bad jobs where their clients are so often doomed, or how they can do it as well as they do.
When we get together, Gunilla and I can get a little bit extreme — enough so that Nancee would sometimes close the sliding doors of Gunilla’s room to protect the sensitive ears of the patients getting treatments a wall away from our roars of laughter and profanity.
You might wonder what we had to laugh about, but it came naturally.
Gunilla was smart, funny and as bawdy as the best of them. She was Gunilla Israel, daughter of Charles, when she was hired as ad manager of The Aspen Times eight or nine years (or more?) ago. She married Mark Asher, had her first breast-cancer diagnosis in 2009, and went through all that plus had two baby boys, now 5 and 6 — double mastectomy, pre-emptive hysterectomy, reconstructive surgery, more reconstructive to fix the screw-ups of the first and then, just as she thought she was all done with it, it came back, metasticized into her lungs, bones, liver and elsewhere.
She was a big lady and larger than life in more than size. She was loud, one of the few people I could hear without my hearing aids in, and she was extremely generous — always picking up the bill, buying lavish presents for friends and she had that great sense of humor.
“One of my worst faults is that I want people to like me,” she said one time.
Ah, Gunilla. You succeeded in that. I hope you know it. We loved you.
Su Lum is a longtime local who can’t believe she’s gone. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at email@example.com
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