Joanie has many friends.
It hadn’t been a week since Joanie’s surgery, but her hospital room was taking on the look of a greenhouse. There were flowers that had been being delivered since the first day, and almost every day since, and they took up every open space in the room except for her bedside table and the chair in which I sat while with her.
Nurses who would deliver the gifts, both cut flowers and plants each day, would marvel at the sight in her room. The one space that was left open was the chair in which I sat, and it would have been to unstable for a vase of flowers with water in it, else I think they might have put flowers or a plant there too, and I would be forced to stand or squat on my haunches providing an interesting sight to anyone passing by the door to her room.
You never really know how many friends you have until you are in a difficult situation. Joanie was in a difficult situation, and the outpouring from friends, co-workers, acquaintances and others was something that astounded her. The flowers, the cards, the phone calls and the visits amazed me as well. I knew she had a lot of friends, but had not expected anything like I was seeing as every day brought a new batch of cards and gifts.
Joanie, couldn’t believe it either, and even though in the early days after the surgery she was tired and under the influence of the heavy duty pain killer, morphine, she would shake her head in disbelief at each card or gift I would open for her.
That was to be my job. I had become her social secretary, as well as the indoor gardener, for the duration of her hospital stay, and per her instructions, I recorded every card she received, on the date she received it. I also kept track of every phone call we received, or made during the time she was in the hospital, and I did the same with gifts and flowers, and had a complete record by the time we were ready to get her out of the hospital and back home to Bismarck and her kitties.
The office of Governor Ed Schafer sent a box of gifts from the staff with the instructions that she was to open only one per day until the box was empty. We never varied from those instructions, and I recorded each and every one. Some days, I wasn’t sure she knew what it was, or remembered who it was from, but she had the record to look at when she got home.
Cathy Rydell, one of her best friends who had seen her in ICU the day after “the big one,” called me about a week after surgery and told me she wanted me to check with Joanie and see if it was okay with her that Cathy could start a fund raising effort, called “The Friends of Joan Wigen,” to help us defray the costs associated with the medical problems she was facing and help with costs that weren’t covered by insurance. I ran it by Joanie, and she shook her head, not believing anyone would do that, but she said okay. One thing she didn’t want to know was who the contributers were, and I relayed that to Cathy. Cathy would be in charge of any funds raised and would disburse them based on bills and receipts presented. She told me her aim was to raise five to ten thousand dollars. When I told Joanie about that, she couldn’t believe it.
We never did see a list of those contributers, but, jumping ahead to December, 1998, Joanie wrote a letter that Cathy could send out to the donors thanking them for their support.
This is what she wrote:
December 17, 1998
I would like to have personalized this letter, but since Cathy hasn’t shown me a list I don’t know who I should be addressing it to. This greeting, however, is personal as are the words that follow.
This year, as you know, has not been one of the easiest that I’ve experienced in my life, and since you will be receiving this you are among those who have an idea of what has taken place since February.
I thought that this letter which is basically an update on the state of my health, both physical and mental is in order this holiday season. It seems to me that this is a good time for reflection and thanks that I’m doing well, and to thank those of you who were so generous in your support for us during the difficult period earlier this year.
First of all, I’m doing well. I’m feeling fine, and feel stronger every day. I’m back to work almost full-time following surgery in September, and I’m adjusting to my new situation with what the doctors call my “appliance” as best I can.
As you know, I had what was supposed to be a temporary ileostomy following that unpleasant surgery in February, and had been looking forward to them being able to reverse that process. Unfortunately, there had been to much tissue damage from radiation in 1996, and February of this year, and they were unable to do that. That was a disappointment, because it meant a permanent colostomy. However, the good news is that cancer is nowhere to be found, and my doctors say I should be around for a long, long, time now. Long enough I suppose to turn every last hair on Bob’s head completely white.
Bob, by the way, has been my rock through all of this. His quiet confidence and unflappable nature has helped me through the darkest hours of this medical ordeal and I’m not sure what I would have done without him, though he tells me I would have done just fine.
So, that’s the update, and now on to the real purpose of this letter.
I want each and every one of you to know how much your generosity was appreciated, and how much it helped ease the financial strain connected with my illness. Your friendship is a valued thing, and in some ways, a simple thank you doesn’t seem enough. What you and others did for Bob and me this year is something that will never be forgotten. I want you all to know that, and this Christmas, especially, we will be thinking of you, even though we don’t know the names on the list.
Again our thanks, and have a great Christmas.
This wasn’t the only show of support and generosity she would experience over the ensuing years and it would not be the last, and it was indicative of just how many real friends Joanie had, and what they would do for her when she was sick.