Bec's Story

My husband George Edward Gilbert was born
in a little town in north central Pennsylvania
called Danville (it was an iron-mining town).
He was the oldest of five boys.
George was a really great big brother
to his brothers.
It was what made him prime
husband and father material, too.
He went to Juniata College for undergraduate school


(majored in physics and math).

The first in his family to do so,
and then he went to Temple University
in Philadelphia for graduate school,
which is kind of how we got together.

We were both teaching days in the suburbs
and going to school nights
for our Masters' degrees in
center city Philly.
It was really dangerous
(people would jump out from
between parked cars and mug you)
so we drove into the city together
and he would walk me to class
and then back to the car.
We didn't have time for food until
9:30 or 10 o'clock at night
and so we would stop for hamburger dinners
at a Shoney's Big Boy on the way home.
Talking to each other at Shoney's was
how we got to know and like each other.
His brothers and my kids wrote a eulogy
for him that I think captures who he was.

Memorial Service, April 2,2004
The family gathered and composed
this tribute to George
George is our hero.
We admire him as surely as
we admire George Washington,
Walt Disney, Franklin Roosevelt,
Martin Luther King, and Ghandi.
In this generation of our family
George is the person we admired
and tried to emulate.
No one will take his place.
He will remain the cherished head
of our family.
In the early years of television,
when George was growing up,
the cowboy wearing the white hat
was the role model.
George's favorite was Roy Rogers
Looking back we can see the
influence these cowboy models,
and others such as Superman,
had on his life.
George Gilbert would not have
chopped down the Cherry tree.
If he did, he too would have told the truth about it.
If someone needed to be rescued,
George rose to the occasion.
If a student at school needed extra help,
George provided it on his own time.
George never shot the person wearing the black hat;
he shot the gun out of his hand.
If you needed him, he was always there.
He was not the singing cowboy,
and he was not the modern day troubled cowboy.
He knew who he was.
He was very proud.
He was confident he could handle
whatever challenge he faced.
Yet, those who knew him understood
he was a loving and humble person.
He believed the famous quotation
"Pride is concerned with who is right.
Humility is concerned with what is right."
He avoided conflict by finding
practical solutions to the matters at hand.
George seldom had to draw his gun.
He was the small town Sheriff handling the
difficult jobs yet thrilled at the enjoyment
the job returned to him
George was happy that someone would pay him
for doing something he loved, teaching.

Even in the first grade George showed an aptitude for math.
One day the teacher asked all the students
to stand and count until they could go no further.
One by one the students reached their limits and sat down.
George was the last student standing.
He stopped only at the teacher's request.
He recalled, "I felt I could go on forever".
His gun remained firmly in his holster.
George was captain of the Danville High basketball team
and made the Southern All Star Team in his senior year.
His natural athletic ability
enabled him to participate in community sports
and to enjoy the camaraderie.
He played in the Council Rock Faculty Softball League,
he loved bowling and won Council Rock's
longest drive golf tournament.
Combining math and softball,
his uniform number was not a number,
but rather a formula:
Pi to the zero power, which equals the number one.
At Juniata College George earned the honor of residing in the
"Ranch", a suite of rooms in the Old Cloisters
reserved for the top eight senior students.
George's roommates were amazed by his photographic memory.
They liked to tell about the time George returned from a test
and was able to recall every question as well
as the multiple choice answers so everyone
could immediately determine their test performance.

George respected authority.
He was not a rebel.
You can't be a rebel when you
are wearing the Sheriff's badge.
He did not lash out when
an obstacle barred his path.
He followed a thoughtful and logical path.
He analyzed the situation and used his intellect
to devise a solution all parties found acceptable.
He was Marshall Matt Dillon, hearing gunshots,
calmly walking to the troubled scene, and handling it.
The outcome would be the one that was right,
the one that was supposed to happen.
There was no doubt or surprise ending.
The right person was behind bars and the person
who was hurt was gently being assisted
and returned to their happy family.

George met Becky while taking classes
at Temple University.
He escorted Becky to class through dangerous neighborhoods.


Early in their relationship George told her he was going to marry her.
He wore his white hat, drew his gun and got his girl.
Towards the end when George's
chemotherapy treatment caused his fingers to swell,
he could no longer wear his wedding ring.
To signify their endless love he asked that his ring be fused together
with Becky's to form an infinity sign.
George raised Sandy and Duff the old-fashioned way -
doing what a parent should do,
protecting and loving them,
leading them by example, having fun,
being with them, teaching them independence,
and supporting their decisions.
to build their confidence and self-esteem.
A man of action rather than words,
George showed them love by
spending his time contributing to their interests.
He not only attended their basketball games,
he was actively involved in helping them improve
their jump shots or their defensive strategy.
To amuse and educate them, he would rise before dawn
on weekends to prowl through flea markets
in search of games/ toys/ tools
and memorabilia that fit their interests.
We will miss him and we will
look for him when we need him.
He will be there for us because
he is part of us and inside of us.
As we go through life wearing our deputy badges,
we will treat others as he did.
We can't expect to rise to the same level as our hero,
but we don't need to. We have George.
We won't say goodbye because he is still here.

by Becky
I couldn't cry for myself when I lost
my husband because I knew
(from psychology classes in my past)
that tears were the evidence of plain old self-pity,
and since George was dying no matter
what we tried to do to prevent that,
I couldn't pity myself:
he was the one who was being
so brave and suffering the loss of all he held dear.
Doctors had told us right out of the gate
that his illness was terminal,
that there was no cure, that he was going to die from it,
probably within six months to a year of diagnosis.
Lots of couples before us had faced the loss of each other
and of their way of life,
but when it's you looking down the barrel of the cannon,
you do some pretty dumb things, I guess.
When we got the news, we went into hiding.
It was as if we thought we could ignore the facts
if we didn't examine them too closely.
We told only immediate family,
because we knew from the year before,
when George had had prostate cancer surgery,
that there would be lots of questions.
We didn't want to answer them,
just wanted to eat dinners together in our den
and hang out in a little glow-y island of peace
Never mind that the glow was us burning our bridges.

After two weeks, George's brother Jack
who managed a Radiology practice in Charlotte, NC,
and whom we had told "because he might know something,"
gave us what for and it sank in that if we did nothing,
there was no chance to prove the doctors wrong.
We naively thought that maybe if we fought like Jack said,
there was a chance we might be "the ones" (who beat the disease).
At least, in the meantime,
we'd have had us the best medical advice there was.
It was time to fight back, we agreed,
even if the odds were 99.9% against us.
"None but the brave deserve the fair" (John Dryden).
I think we left off the denial phase at this juncture
and slipped into "Fight the dragon on all sides with whatever is handy,
even if it's only a knife and fork."
We discovered that there were few forks and only butter knives,
but we had begun, finally, to fight.

Though George was an agnostic and I was a remodeled atheist,
I believe we both did some bargaining with a God or the gods
to plead for more time/a whiz-doctor/
something to believe in besides doom and gloom.
My prayers were basically,"If You'll.... then I'll..."
I felt that Mercy had looked the other way as had Justice and Love.
We hooked up, though, to an online cancer site called ACOR
and with a really savvy medical ombudsman named Joanne Goldberg
and dug into research, which is how we "got a grip"
and also heard about the leading doctors in mesothelioma treatment:
David Sugarbaker at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston,
Valerie Rusch at Sloan-Kettering in New York City,
and Hedy Kindler at the University of Chicago in Illinois.
We began our Doctor-Odyssey in our black 94 Camry,
which I renamed "The Pennsylvania Rocket"
as we burnt up the Mass Turnpike,
the Pennsylvania Turnpike and The New York Thruway
in our search for someone who might perform
the delicate surgery that seemed George's best chance.
It was called an Extra-Pleural-Pneumonectomy, or EPP.
Someone would have to take out George's right lung,
the lining of his chest,
his heart sac and his diaphragm,
replacing everything but the lung with Gore-tex,
the stuff they use to make the outer shell of ski jackets
because it is waterproof and light

Since David Sugarbaker decided to take us on,
saying he would also give George a
"heated chemo wash" while he had him open,
we decided that maybe that was our best
(though scary) shot for a good result.
On the appointed day, Sandy and Duff and I sat for over eleven hours
in a crowded lobby at Brigham and Women's,
because the hospital was under construction
and there was no place for families to wait.
There was also no real communication until about 4 pm
(they had started before 7 am)
when someone found us in the lobby to say George was alive
and doing satisfactorily (finally!),
that they were giving him the chemo wash.
Thank God for Sandy and Duff's company because they kept saying,
"The longer the operation goes, the better the news."
Whether they were right or not, it was good to have them there.
A little island of family in a strange hospital in a strange town
is a small campfire in the wilderness of primitive feelings.
Next day, we dubbed George's shared room (a ward) "Hocker Heaven"
because nurses would go from bed to bed
pounding on patients' backs to clear their lungs
and make them cough up mucous so they'd stay clear.
George was in incredible pain even
with the wire of his spinal infusion sticking out of his back.
A rib that had been removed was giving him fits
and he looked sicker than a starving dog.
My job was to bug nurses for anything he needed and
to keep him company when he was lucid.
It was probably then that we divided our roles into
Brave Non-Complainer and Cheerleader/Step-n-Fetchit.
I had a small Notebook Computer we had bought at a flea market
and I would take it back to my motel room every night
and keep everybody in both our families and in Council Rock
up-to-date on what was happening with him.
The next day, I would take messages to him
(that I had to copy longhand because I had no printer)
and read them aloud to him.

It was a hard time for both of us
because I lived in a hospital-owned motel for a month
(it had better rates but wasn't a well-oiled machine),
getting up early to get to the hospital in time for rounds
(sometimes I actually made it and got to see Dr. Sugarbaker
if I took a taxi and if the taxi was prompt)
and I stayed until closing,
and then had to take a bus or taxi back to the motel
(there was no such thing as parking at the hospital)
and then I wrote e-mails until I dropped.
George, of course, had it worse,
but he always was glad to see me
and always let me know that whatever I did for him was appreciated.
He surprised me by never taking me for granted.
He never assumed (like I would have)
that the world revolved around him just
because he was going through an ordeal.
When I saw how humble he was,
I was ashamed of myself for all the times I had been tough on him
instead of recognizing what a gem he was and letting him know that.

One really hot day, when he fell asleep,
I left his room and went outside to the street
to look up an ice cream store I had seen that looked promising.
I bought myself a cone and stood in the sun licking it
and feeling guilty that I could walk and stand in the sun
with a simple cone while George was trapped indoors
fighting to recover from a harsh operation.
It was like I could feel the beginning of a divide between us
a rift that had never been there in our thirty-eight years of marriage
one that had been forced on us because we had no choice
if we wanted him to have a chance.
I went back to his room to try to close the rift and rubbed his feet
(which was the only thing that took
his mind off his other pains for a few minutes)
and told him about the hot sun, the cone
and the things going on in the street so he
wouldn't miss out on them altogether.
After that month of recovery, there were a couple weeks
when the hospital let me take him to the motel I was living in
to see how he'd fare "in the world"
before they gave me permission to take him home (in the PA Rocket).
I found that the motel would let me have a little
refrigerator and a hot plate,
things that I'd really need because George couldn't go to a restaurant
(discomfort and infection risk)
and so we camped out in the room together,
exercising his legs in the hallways and dining on soup and franks
and other one-pot meals until they said we could go home.
Though he got a minor infection after two weeks at home
and I had to take him back to Boston feverish and lethargic,
he was still plenty game post-surgery and had lots of fight.

George got better before he got worse again.
When he was better, we lived almost normally
except that we lived for "Pulse-Ox" readings.
(A pulse-oximeter is a hinged device that clips onto an index finger
and registers blood-oxygen level and pulse rate.)
The higher the oxygen level in his blood,
the better George could breathe and
endure things like visits from company.
When the Pulse-Ox was low, he mostly sat and slept
(easier than lying down with his missing rib).
We began to talk about things like "treading water"
(waiting until the lifeboat of Help came along,
help like Emend for chemo nausea and Alimta,
the new meso-chemo),
about how you balance a checkbook
(I had no system; he'd always done the balancing),
about where the insurance policies were
and how much they were worth, etc.
In other words, he began educating me - the heretofore "ditz"
 about all the things I'd need to know to survive.
He showed me how to figure out our income taxes
according to his system - and luckily he did,
because I would have been totally scared out of my mind
when the IRS decided to audit our taxes from the year 2002
two months after George died in 2004,
claiming I owed them a LOT of money in "back taxes and fines."
George was such a good teacher that I knew
there would be an understandable explanation.
The figure the IRS said we hadn't reported was an oddly specific one which,
in my desperate search for "what George would do"
I found in our 2002 tax return;
It had been reported, just was on the wrong line.
After many phone calls and letters,
they said I only owed a fine for late payment
and they let me off the "back taxes" rap.
It wouldn't have happened if George hadn't been sick and sinking in 2002
but I could feel him looking over my shoulder telling me to
"look again at the 2002 return for that specific number."

The trips to the hospitals (ones closer to home as the end neared)
were for things like massive blood clots,
suspected pulmonary embolisms,
putting in and removing a "port" and IV's of various kinds.
Lots of non-meso things were starting to go wrong.
We always went together for every treatment.
We always believed that "where there is life, there is hope."
We were one person with two bodies if that is possible.
United in purpose.
I wrote most of a dopey novel called
Wanton Wiletta and the Pussyfoot Cafe
on my lap in waiting rooms and hospital rooms
when George dozed and there was nothing else I could do for him.
When I was at home, I typed up the notes I had
written on paper cribbed from nurses,
on the backs of place mats and tray-liners
from hospital cafeterias,
on pages from the backs of notebooks
in which I kept records of every visit we made
to every doctor we had ever spoken to
and what we asked and what the answers were.
I kept trying to organize all the paper
and I think it kept me from losing my sense of humor by cultivating one.
There was a mountain of stuff to keep and maintain!
The book kept me patient and the notebooks
kept me sane and on top of things.
Being on top, however,
didn't prevent the disease from running its course.

A major step down was the decision to go with an air compressor 24/7.
It stayed in our living room but had a long enough hose that,
for a while, George could sleep in our bedroom upstairs
if I walked behind him and uncoiled hose as we went up
and recoiled it again as we were going downstairs,
but it wasn't long before the stairs
were too much for him and I couldn't lift or carry him,
I would have been injured along with him if he fell.
It was a real blow when the oncologist suggested hospice.
Neither of us believed the doctor meant NOW.
I think we were angry that he was "rushing things,"
When you've been fighting for four years for something you want,
you lose sight of changes that are obvious
to those with more objectivity.
We maintained our schedule of chemo:
George took a chemo treatment the week before he died,
though he had to be taken there
as he had for appointments of all kinds for some time,
in a wheel chair with an oxygen tank on the chair.
The word "Hospice" meant "giving up" to us
because it was explained that you promise
you will not seek medical treatment in a hospital.
Because George gave everything careful thought
and took his time making decisions
(never let himself be rushed or talked
into acting on a whim like I did/do),
he didn't tell me to call hospice until he must have already
decided he could go no further, that he was worn out.
I didn't want him to give up and, at first,
refused to call hospice for him (he was bed-ridden)
but we finally struck an agreement.
I would call hospice for him if I didn't have to sign any papers
indicating my agreement with his decision.
Like a mule, I wouldn't give ground,
felt no sense that the end was near.
Hospice said over the phone that the morphine they were going to send
would be there the next day and that they would visit then.

That night, when I was giving George his evening pills,
instead of swallowing them with water,
he crunched them up noisily in his teeth like carrots.
I thought he was joking around until he slid back onto the mattress
and fell into a deep sleep without responding to my questions.
It was an unnatural sleep.
I called hospice and described what had happened.

The nurse on duty told me to start using the liquid morphine
Fox Chase had given me and put a dropper full inside his cheek
where it would absorb quickly into his bloodstream.
I did
I was to repeat it every hour.
I did, but looking back on it,
I'm pretty sure it was the wrong thing to do.
George wasn't in any greater pain than usual that night
and the frequent morphine was not something his body was used to.
At eleven-thirty pm, George suddenly jumped up out of bed
though he'd been unable to even sit up by himself for some time.
He leaped into a standing position on the floor yelling,
"Unhh!, Unhh!, Noooo!, Noooo!"
He was looking out of the room and right through me,
couldn't focus and was frightened out of his mind.
I don't know how I held onto him in his agitation
because he had more strength at that moment than he'd had for months.

"It's okay, George," I told him over and over,
"I'm here and everything's okay,"
but he went on looking terrified and saying,
I could tell he was "seeing something"
hallucinating and that I wasn't there with him in the nightmare.
When I was sure I couldn't hold him anymore,
he suddenly collapsed back onto the bed.
I called hospice and they said to call someone to stay with me,
that it could happen again and to keep giving George the morphine.
I called my son though he was in bed
and told him hospice told me to get help.
He came right away and got the bed rails out of the garage.
We surrounded George with pillows
so he couldn't hurt himself if he tried to jump up
and hit the rails,
but he never moved after that
and I continued to give him the morphine
the hospice said to administer
because I was afraid to think for myself,
given what had just happened.
Duff and I talked about whether to call Sandy and what to say.
We decided that since this might be "It",
that George was dying, we had better call her.
We didn't know whether she could make it home in time
to talk to her father while he was still alive,
and we knew that people in a coma
have come back to say they could hear
what had been going on around them.
so we held the phone to his ear and let her talk
for as long as she wanted.
Finally, she told us she was going to try to find a flight home
to be with her father.
She got home at noon and George suddenly sat up,
sighed, and died at 2:20pm that afternoon.

My husband died at home where he wanted to be,
in the den which was "his" room more than anyone else's.
It was where he always had graded papers
and watched (or listened to) television while he worked.
It was the heart of the house for him,
just as the kitchen was the heart of the house for me.
And he was gone.
Just like that.
To ask God for him back would have been the most selfish thing
I could do since I had watched him slowly
and grudgingly give up his grip on life
which he loved more than any other person I have ever known,
enjoyed every minute of that life,
even the hard parts, and still had to throw in the towel.
Giving up was a decision he made only
when the constant grind of pain got to be too much for him,
and the giving up cost him his belief that
"Good guys win." He knew he was a good guy who, through no fault of his own,
was not going to win this time.
He lost his battle with mesothelioma,
an asbestos-caused terminal cancer on March 26th, 2004.
He was only sixty-one years old and should have been able
to look forward to "ripening on the vine of old age"
instead of withering away before the eyes of all the people who loved him.



I remember the day, less than a month before he died,
when I got angry as hell in a supermarket
because I couldn't deny anymore that he was dying.
I was standing in Genuardi's in the bread aisle.
During the fifteen minutes I'd allowed myself to pick
up groceries and get back to him.
And there in the bread aisle was a bent,
white-haired couple who must have been in their eighties,
discussing which loaf of bread to buy.
What made me so mad was that I felt cheated.
George and I would never have the chance
to stand together and make a weighty decision
about bread while the rest of the world walked around us.
George, who had called this same store from his
hospital bed in our den to order 38 red roses
for me that Valentine's Day
"one for every trip around the sun we had made together"
was out of time,
and so was I.

Who do you complain to when you feel you've been
cheated out of the hand that reaches for yours?
It was God's plan that this should happen.
I couldn't see why God would plan this
"Death in the Family" for a while,
but I know now that I had some
"new lessons in living"
to learn.
Things like I could cope with the IRS
and not "skate" through life being so dependent on another
and George
needed out because
he was just plain tired
and I was never going to agree with that.
In the five years he has been gone,
I have made peace with God,
but I still miss George and always will.
There was only ever one of him and now he is gone.

The thing about George's meso
is that it may have been from more than one source.
Lawyers interviewed him in depth
and took most of the stuff he had collected and used
from our basement and garage.
What they found out was that George had done
brake work on our cars and that many of the cans
and boxes in our basement and garage
had asbestos in them.
There was even asbestos
(which was removed, after his death,
from the classroom ceiling and the hallway
in the school building where he had worked for so many years).
He wouldn't consider suing the school district
because that would have been spitting on the school district
he had loved,
but the lawyers pursued manufacturers of products he had used
puttering and repairing things around our home.
They were sure that any one of the asbestos-containing products
could have been the cause of his meso
and they were the experts.
We were not.
We bowed to their judgement
because they had been through this fact-finding
before and we had not.

Whether George's mesothelioma
came from one cause or ten, we couldn't be sure
but what we knew for certain
was that George enjoyed living,
would not have given up the opportunity
to see his grandson Kyle grow up,
wrote in shaky handwriting
(since he was by then so sick)
a letter with a "first car" payment
in it because he knew he wouldn't
be able to be there himself
to give it to this grandchild he loved
(Kyle was six months old when George died)
and surely he wouldn't have missed meeting his
granddaughter Lauren,
who would have stolen his heart
(she's five today, was born three years after his death)

What is family worth to a family man like George?
Because of asbestos,
our grandchildren will have no real concept
of how funny and
wonderful their missing Grandpop
would have been,
the games he would have invented for them.
Even his students remember his math problems
disguised as chicken jokes.
The humor was never the lesson
for the young people he loved to share this planet with,
but I know George lightened hearts with his
"Attaboy!/ Attagirl!!"
spirit and his sense of fun.

The main thing about George
after his love of life,
is that he was a guy who always looked forward.
He didn't sit around asking himself,
"Why me?"
but was the kind of man who would say,
"Why not me?"
and do his best to face whatever
was confronting him.
Whether it was his humility or his bravery
in the face of a fearful diagnosis
that explains why he didn't dissolve in self pity,
I can't say,
but I still look to him as the one true love of my life
who was and is irreplaceable.
He is my Shining Example of how to go on.


On To Janelle's Story