Susan notes: A week after Judy O’Sullivan died of cancer in January
2005 at the age of 56, her youngest sister Wanda Sommerfeld wrote a
letter to Judy’s wide circle of friends to explain how and why Judy had
died. It’s a wonderfully loving letter that is at once sad and
celebratory. (Wanda also wrote a story about Judy’s life to mark the anniversary of her passing, and gave AWR the eulogy delivered at her funeral by one of Judy’s colleagues.)
Although I didn’t know Judy, I felt touched by her after I read Wanda’s
letter, and it struck me that it might serve as an example to others,
and perhaps might even help someone somewhere to cope a little more
easily with the death of a loved one. So, here it is in its original
form, word for word as Wanda wrote it.
January 30th, 2005
Dear Special Friend,
I was entrusted to share some very sad news with you. My name is Wanda
Sommerfeld, and I am Judy O’Sullivan’s littlest sister and friend.
Judy passed away one week ago today – Sunday January 23, 2005, at
The very first thing I want you to know is that she died without
physical pain. I was with her in hospital her last night and I am
absolutely sure that she was comfortable, because right up until about
4 hours before she passed away, she was awake, and I was with her. So
I’m not saying that she didn’t have pain because somebody in the health
care profession told us. I asked and she answered a number of times.
As Judy asked me to share what I felt was right with a number of people, some people I know and some people I think I know because of the many times she told stories about her friends far away – I have decided to just to this once, and photocopy. There were also special people in her life that wanted to be at the memorial, but couldn’t for geographic and other reasons, so I’m sending a copy of this same information. I invite and encourage you to share this letter with people who want to know what happened if you are asked. If it would be easier for you to send to people you want to share with over email, please send me an email, and I’ll send you the file.
I have written it as if I was trying to talk to a child and Ruby Medicine-Crane explained some things to me about kids that are missing her at her school, so it would be good if you can share this with your kids if you want – I did.
It’s hard to explain how many people have asked what happened. Family, friends of course, but also many people I met over the last week who I didn’t know the exact connection, but in Fort McLeod it’s hard to walk around looking like one of Lawrence and Mary Phillips girls without somebody saying hello and telling me a story about Judy. So I decided as best I can to send this letter and tell the story as best as I can to my knowledge.
Judy was diagnosed with breast cancer about two years ago, and did the protocol treatments at the time. Everything seemed to have worked the way it should, and she enjoyed lots of special time since then, going back to teach, working with her kids, and Judy being Judy, she ended up back at the Standoff school with her family of Native people.
Roy had a rough go this early summer of 04, as he had a mild heart attack. He was back home quite fast and although slowed down, he’s still Roy – doing chores and going for coffee at the A & W but because of that, Judy slowed right down and they got to enjoy lots of time together, tootling about in the truck, messing with the horses or I’d call and ask what she’d done ‘today’ and she’d say ‘Just Snoozing’. And after she went back teaching in September, the pattern stayed much the same, with lots of time being spent with Roy, her house and ranch, and her animals, with friends dropping in on them. It was around then (Sept/Oct) that she was really having trouble catching her breath and would use her collection of special remedies and her ‘puffer’ and just slowed down on the walking, etc.
It wasn’t until late November that she got the official news from the cancer clinic in Lethbridge. Her breast cancer had moved into her lungs and both lungs were ‘fully engaged’. I was lucky enough to have gotten to go into the hospital to get the ‘official’ news with Judy so I know she wasn’t alone when the Dr came in, but with all the tests they did, Judy probably knew perfectly well what the future held before Dr told her that the cancer had re-occurred.
She started therapy right away (again in Lethbridge) but this was a different kind of treatment, so only administered every three weeks, and it doesn’t have a lot of the same side effects. I can’t remember the name of it, but I do remember the pharmacist at the cancer clinic explaining to Judy and I that it was like a ‘stealth bomber’ it only ‘seeks’ out the specific cancer. I don’t remember much else about that discussion, but am going to ask my family Dr to explain it to me again sometime. (Probably when I go for my next exam!!) So if you’re curious, Judy didn’t loose her hair, and didn’t have the upset of the nausea and other side effects of the treatments almost three years ago.
Because she was worried about both her ‘family’ and Roy’s ‘family’ not knowing what were her special treasures, she did us the amazing service of sorting out what belonged to my Mom (photo’s, letters, writings that were saved and had ended up at Judy’s) and a lot of her special treasures, including photos from school, trips etc. I imagine she also passed along some things to her special friends along the way over the last couple months. The one thing I said I wanted from her was a ‘list’ of names, phone numbers and addresses, so I would know who was who, because many of the stories I remember being told are about her life events, and I was just a little kid!!! Hey – I may be way over the hill and sliding down that slope, but I’m still the youngest!
Of course, I’m talking about Judy, so you must know that all of this was done with jokes, some gag gifts and some real big laughs. And all of us, right up to the very last, believed we had to face the reality of this, but maybe months or at worst weeks, not the very fast end that we actually all were blessed with, including Judy.
She went on oxygen about mid-December, so had a machine at home and bottles to ‘tootle’ about with, but her tootling was limited to as far away as Lethbridge, up to the mountains and around town so even though it limited their range somewhat in their travels, that was the first that anyone had a ‘visual’ that something was wrong. And because of that, she had to lug her ‘bottle of life’ around when she left the house, but also she received lots of calls from friends and neighbours, and had lots of people dropping by.
My sister Carolyn and her husband Lee, who live in Fort McLeod were keeping ‘an eye’ out for her, so when she had some troubles and ended up in hospital overnight for a ‘mini’ crisis (which happened twice, both just short stays), my other sister Rita who lives in Calgary would get a call or I’d get a call (also in Calgary), and so thru the group of us we’d find out what was happening, from either talking to Judy or Roy, so I guess I’m trying to say that between Roy’s family, our family and Roy and Judy of course, we all let each other know what was happening.
We had our family Christmas in McLeod this year at Carolyn’s house, and we all got to visit with Judy and Roy Xmas day before they went for dinner at Roy’s daughter’s house in Lethbridge, and then we also spent lots of time with her on Boxing day at Carolyn’s and Lee’s house in Ft McLeod. I will be forever grateful that happened. And of course there were laughs – but now the humour also included lugging the air bottle stories and lots of family history stories and time to share.
Judy had her third ‘treatment’ on January 17th, 2005. I heard that didn’t sit well with her and she wasn’t feeling very well for a couple days, and Roy called the ambulance Thursday. Friday they shifted her over to the ‘community care beds’ in Fort McLeod. I guess that was a bit scary because it is also the palliative care beds area of the hospital, but to the best of my knowledge she was not classified as ‘palliative’ care, so once it was explained to her that she was in the ‘person who needs a bit of extra help area’ we all relaxed a little bit. In a small town, the ‘four’-bed unit probably has many uses…
Friday, Carolyn emailed that Lee had dropped in and he felt that we should come down, and that she was being given morphine. I got the email at work, and decided that if she was on morphine, and I didn’t understand what was going on, that I’d call the Oncology department. I ended up talking to a special lady and after I explained who I was, where Judy was and that I needed to understand what was happening, she gave me the biggest gift I have ever had in my life. She trusted me, and because I had been with Judy in Nov, shared that Judy wasn’t responding to treatment, and Judy was going to be told and given some ‘palliative’ care options, but that appointment was scheduled for sometime in February – Judy didn’t know and as Roy’s daughter, who lives in Lethbridge, happened to be in Vancouver (about 1 hour flight) visiting her daughter, I only told my sisters and the nurse at the hospital where Judy was at. Without being able to see Debbie (Roy’s daughter) face to face, I couldn’t tell Roy and, of course, we thought we were looking at months, maybe weeks.
I grabbed a bunch of clothes and books and a stuffed toy donkey my 9year old daughter Nikki wanted her to have (donkey’s name is Bud!) so Auntie Judy would have someone to snuggle while she was in hospital, and headed down. My other sister from Calgary drove down in the morning (Sat) and between us we stayed with her, and laughed and told stories.
I didn’t stay over in hospital Friday night because it didn’t seem like it was necessary. But I heard her chatting on the phone (ok, chatting is the wrong word, but she was trying) and cracking jokes, she seemed fine (in the circumstances). Her comment on the phone to a friend cracked me up because she said ‘I think it’s a crap shoot, but at least I’m still standing in the crap!’
The nurses suggested on Saturday that one of us stay over in the room, with Judy, so they shifted her to a larger room, with a nice cot, and it was very comfortable, with chairs and a recliner chair. I said I’d like to stay, and about 8pm we started to settle in for the night. I just have to say that as late as 4pm on Saturday, she was absolutely sharp and clear – it took a few ‘short’ sentences to get what she wanted to say out, but asked me to call the pharmacist to check if Roy’s medicine had been picked up, so I said sure I’d call, and she told me the phone number – so was not confused or disoriented. (Of course the medicine had been picked up a day or two before by a family friend).
Judy started to get more and more restless and the nurses called Dr and increased her medication on Dr orders (started about midnight) and she would just would relax for a short time, but then start moving again. She’d sit up. Lay down. Stretch her legs, Stand up, lay down – and etc… Finally about 3:30am she was resting, with what the staff requested for sleeping medicine and the other stuff she was on, she got some rest, and so did I.
Staff woke me at 7:30 am to say that I’d better call family – so I ran back into the room to grab my ‘phone list’ because I couldn’t remember my own sister’s phone number! (About 2 or 3 minutes), and when we went back to get my purse, Judy had gone.
When I called Lee (Rita was staying with them overnight) I think I said ‘Judy passed away a couple minutes ago’, Lee said one word that will be frozen in my brain forever. “WHAT!!!!??????”. I said it again, and he said they’d be right there. For those of you who don’t know Fort Mcleod really well, or at all, when someone says they’ll be right there, they mean it – I think they walked in the door before I hung up the phone. I think they live about 4 minutes from hospital when you’re not in a hurry. Lee said the one word that explained it all – it expressed shock, surprise, and everything in one word. It was a word that probably best said ‘I can’t believe it…I thought we had more time, and everything that was so sad about her death in a single word’. At least that was what that single word at that moment meant to me.
Later – (days later) when we started to joke and laugh about it, I told Lee that I was pretty sure I was speaking English the first time I said it, but the second time I said it, who knows!??
I wanted you to know that the service was really incredible. My sister, a life long teacher, with her degree in special ed taught much of her career on the Blood Indian reserve…. they ‘adopted’ her and honoured her by her own Spiritual name in their language about 30 years ago, and so we had elders from the reserve and spiritual customs from the Blood. The elders who spoke were wearing their ceremonial headdress, which were so beautiful, and interesting looking. A cultural prayer was spoken, plus they talked about their customs and that they practice in the Catholic faith.
A good friend spoke about the ranching life that they shared together, including a very cute story of how they met – he was saying he was probably he only person who met her while she was angry! He happened to be the bishop of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Ft. McLeod. We also had a speaker who was the principal of the school in Ft McLeod up to a few years ago when he retired, and the principal from the school in Standoff where she was still working. We had it all in the United Church where we were raised up in, Needless to say it was happy and sad and we laughed and my daughter Nikki did amazing. She didn’t understand a lot, because I don’t attend church regularly, but realize that I need to start doing at least some of that starting pretty soon. The minister Aldeen McKay would absolutely love to hear me say that….she was just amazing – she knew just the right words to say.
We got permission to put in some of Judy’s favourite things, so her funny three-foot high wooden chickens came to church and were set up by the big photo at the front. Because some people had to sit on the other part of the church, because all the pews were filled, we had a big photo of Judy while she was being inducted into the native community. Nikki had the stuffed toy that Judy had with her in hospital and a lot of other special things were at the church.
It was always a custom to have a tea afterwards, so people had organized doing a photo collage so we had in the tea hall lots of snapshots of Judy and her life, with her real kids (Judy didn’t have kids off her own, so she claimed every little kid for her own), old black and white shots of her when she was a kid, and from riding horses to playing with kids, hiking, etc.
My daughter Nikki is sad and happy, and very tired, and as we all are. It’s hard to go thru anything without feeling every emotion that exists. Once you feel them so intensely for so many days, it’s time to get back to normal. That doesn’t mean we’ll forget. It just means that a very big event in our lives is over, and now we have to pick up the pieces and move on.
If you want to pass this info on, please do so. If I made any mistakes in the information, I’m sorry but it’s been a busy week, and we’ve all had a lot on our plates. But we got thru it.
If you want to contact me to say hello or have some tea, or email me from where ever you are my information is below. I have contact information for my other sisters, and other friends – Judy gave me her list.
One name I am worried about is Gloria Benz. Gloria, I don’t have your phone number and directory assistance couldn’t didn’t have you listed, but hopefully this will find you – maybe someone else who will get the letter knows your address – I have you listed in Perry OHIO.
I know right now you want to say your condolences to our family and to Roy and Roy’s family. Roy is as fine as he can be, and there are things put in place that will help him through this while he continues to remain on the Ranch.
One of the native speakers, whose name was Martin Eagle-Child announced at the funeral that the native community will be doing a special Pow-Wow and ceremony and we were all invited, and they’ll get us the details, and we’ll get them to you. I would guess that that would likely happen in the spring or summer, but didn’t get details yet.
Her name was Judy Elaine Phillips O’Sullivan Ohpokawakaasaakkii
Judy Elaine Phillips was her maiden name, O’Sullivan is her married name, and Ohpokawakaasaakkii her spiritual name, which means Little Deer Woman in English. There’s a pretty long list of nick names, but to a lot of the little kids she taught, she was Mrs. O’. I’m sure we can make a really long list if we put it together, which would be fun.
Please do write, call or email me.