Hard reminders that we don’t get to choose our exit

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

I had a bad day recently, dealing with the mysteries that come with the end of life.

They got me thinking about how I’d like to check out when the time comes. I know, that’s not anyone’s favorite topic, but I have long admired the way an uncle of mine exited.

He had a heart attack, the EMTs got him to the hospital alive, he hung on a day or two so his family could gather and he could be reminded of their love, and then he died.

My bad day began with the funeral service for Val Klemish, who some readers will note wrote a recipe column for us.

Val, who lived in rural Swanville, died unexpectedly in her sleep at age 82. Her daughter told me that Val was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat many years ago, and they believe that was what ended her life.

Val worked as a proofreader at the paper until going into semi-retirement a few years ago. On a daily basis, she saved us from ourselves, correcting the typos and other assorted mistakes that we make as we deal with the weekly flood of ads.

Even in retirement, she continued to write her column, and also fill in during vacations.

As they say, she died with her boots on. The day before she passed away, she turned in her last recipe column.

I will remember her as a cheerful, hard-working co-worker, who, because of her recipes, kept Central Minnesota better fed than most of us realized.

I am tempted to say that that’s how I would like to go — no pain, no suffering that anyone could tell — but then I saw the grief in the eyes of her family, and realized how much they would have liked to tell her one more time that they loved her.

Funerals are always sobering, but that evening came news that I had been dreading. My brother’s granddaughter, Hannah Metzler, age 17, had succumbed to a brain tumor.

Hannah spent her earliest years living on a farm in southern Minnesota while her dad taught English at Owatonna High School.

Then, 10 years ago, her mom, my niece, got a job as the organ transplant coordinator at a hospital in Rochester, N.Y.

As a result, I can’t say that I knew Hannah well. I can tell you, however, that, although I wouldn’t wish Hannah’s fate on my worst enemy, she had a profound impact on the people around her during her short life.

Until a year and a half ago, she was a normal, happy teenager. She was the goalie on her high school field hockey team, and active in other school activities.

Then, she suddenly had a couple of episodes of dizziness and fainting, and more mysteriously, her handwriting became cramped.

After a battery of tests, the doctors discovered a mass growing on Hannah’s cerebellum, one of those unpronounceable, multi-syllable blastomas.

The surgeons operated in October 2012, and followed up with extensive chemo and radiation. Last spring, there was still optimism that she would win this battle.

Meanwhile, Hannah didn’t just sit around being sick. She began raising money for cancer research. With her brother’s help, and her many friends, she organized a concert to “Crush Cancer,” that raised more than $17,000. Other contributions were made as well during the year, and she directed most of the money to a program that helps other kids with cancer. She had an amazing attitude, at one point telling her grandparents, “If someone has to have this disease, it might as well be me.”

But last spring and into the summer, the optimism faded. The tumor was on her brainstem, so they had not been able to get it all. It was also particularly aggressive. With her mother well-connected to the medical community, her parents looked for experimental treatments, but her tumor was rare, and she never fit anyone else’s protocol.

In the summer, her mother was having lunch with a friend and, by chance, mentioned that Hannah’s favorite TV show was “NCIS.”

The husband of the friend, by coincidence, had a college roommate who is now an executive producer of the show.

The husband contacted his ex-roommate, and the producer invited Hannah and her parents to visit the set in Hollywood. They stayed in the guest house at his mansion, toured the set and were introduced to many cast members. Not only did they meet the star, Mark Harmon, but they had lunch with him. He was extraordinarily gracious with his time.

But the tumor continued to grow. In the fall, Hannah was confined to a wheelchair, having lost the use of the left side of her body, and her right side began to go numb. Her body’s thermostat went out of whack, simultaneously causing hot flashes at one end of her body and cold spells at the other. She lost the ability to speak and swallow.

Hannah finally left her mortal binds with her parents, brother and an aunt at her side.

Word spread fast. The next morning at 6 a.m., a rally was held in her memory at her high school. A thousand kids showed up.

I can accept the “why” of Val’s death a lot better than I do Hannah’s, simply because of the age difference, but if I had my druthers, I’d still choose my uncle’s path out.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to vote on the issue.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320) 616-1932 or email [email protected]

  • Also worth noting, Tom West did not list himself as General Manager of the Record. Any other exits you’d like to fill us in on?

  • tmac

    Very nicely stated.