Living and dying with dignity
Prof. Christine Overall made a promise to her friend, faculty colleague and fellow columnist, Sue Hendler, who was suffering from and eventually succumbed to cancer in 2009. Throughout her illness, Hendler had been writing columns for The Kingston Whig-Standard, chronicling her progress, her treatment, and her reactions. It was her wish that these columns be compiled into a book after her death. In September 2012, Overall realized her friend’s wish by publishing Dying in Public: Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer (Michael Grass House; available in hard copy or as an e-book online from amazon.com and as an e-book from chapters.ca.
“Sue wanted to take the public on a journey with her,” says Overall. “She wanted to share her experiences even when it became clear that her life was going to end a lot sooner than she had hoped or planned.”
In the process of editing the columns, Overall experienced a journey of her own, rediscovering her friend and learning more about her, months after she had passed away.
“She accepted that her life was finite. I had a lot more trouble with that than she did,” says Overall. “Sue thought a lot about how she could best use her time, how she could stay connected to family and friends, and what kind of legacy she could leave behind. She was a great role model.”
The two women had been friends for more than 20 years, having met early in their teaching careers. Although their disciplines were quite different – Overall teaches in the Philosophy Department, while Hendler taught in the School of Urban and Regional Planning – they had much in common, both being feminists and interested in ethics. When they found themselves working in a mostly male-dominated administration, their friendship continued to grow; they shared many meals and bottles of wine as they offered mutual support for their high-pressure roles at Queen’s.
When Hendler made her illness public through her newspaper columns, she began to see themes emerging and a unity that suggested they could be published as a book. For help and guidance, Hendler turned to Overall, who had some of her own Whig-Standard columns published in 2001 as the book Thinking Like A Woman (Toronto Women’s Press, $14.56).
In editing the Hendler book, Overall divided the columns into four categories: “The breast cancer roller coaster,” “Treatments and trials,” “Identity, relationships, and feelings,” and “Perspective: The garden goes on.” The last is a tribute to Hendler’s love of growing things. Gardening was a really creative outlet for her,” says Overall.
Hendler was determined that her plants – and her words – would last longer than her own life. Shortly before her death she wrote, “We can look back at our life, as well as ahead to our death, and make observations and decisions as to how we have changed, or perhaps could yet change, the world. Actions that make change are at least as important as, and probably a lot more important than, the material goods we bequeath to others.”
Sue Hendler’s words portray an authentic life of courage, determination, beauty, and love.