Most people, I think, would feel that Dennis Freeland had certainly been dealt a bad hand in life. After all, it was just a little more than a year ago, still in his early forties, when he first suffered a stroke that put him in the hospital for more than a week and left him somewhat incapacitated. For months he battled impediments that affected his speech and his hands -- a hell of an affliction for someone who makes his living as a writer and editor.
Dennis slowly and steadily overcame those deficits, as the neurologists call them, and we rejoiced at his apparent recovery. But earlier this year other, more ominous, symptoms arose, and a battery of doctors in Memphis could do little but offer conflicting opinions about the cause of his increasing weakness, dizziness, and deteriorating vision. Another stroke, some said, though they werent able to pinpoint it. A bout with multiple sclerosis, thought others. Finally, an MRI revealed a brain tumor, which even after risky surgery and radiation treatments, ultimately resulted in his death on Sunday, January 6th.
Yet through it all, it was Dennis himself who called himself fortunate. That was, in fact, the title of a talk he gave last year before the Rotary Club of his home town of Paris, Tennessee. While acknowledging that he was one of some 600,000 people nationwide to suffer strokes, he told the audience, Im a very lucky man. Not just for recovering from that illness, he explained, but for maintaining a successful career and landing a position as editor of the Flyer, which he called the best place Ive ever worked.
Dennis claimed he was lucky in many other ways, too, and it took a devastating illness for those of us who knew him to fully understand what he meant. Even while he was hospitalized, he kept his friends and co-workers apprised of his progress, but never failed to close any of his eloquent, often witty, e-mails with a paragraph thanking everyone for their love and support.
In one message, sent to a group of friends just before surgery, he wrote: I was making a mental list of all the faiths that I have saying prayers for me, mostly thanks to this list: Baptist, Catholic, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Islam, Judaism, Methodist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Zoaroastrian (the oldest monotheistic religion in the world). I have probably left out some, sorry. Plus many have sent positive thoughts and good energy my way and one person even includes me in his daily meditation. All of this means more to me than you can know.
In another e-mail sent a few days later, he wrote, I draw great strength from the encouragement I receive from the people on this list. I wish we could have you all over to the house for a big Indian dinner.
A later message echoed the others: As usual, I appreciate all your support. I realize that people on this list have problems just as bad as mine and I wish the best for all of you.
And one more, this one closer to the end: Thanks for all your cards, e-mail, e-cards, flowers, food, visits, calls, good thoughts, prayers, and support. At times like this I am reminded of how very fortunate I am to have such loving friends and family.
I was fortunate enough to visit him just days before he passed away, as the tumor began to take its deadly toll on his body and he lay in bed at home with his eyes closed, drifting in and out of consciousness. What I encountered was a truly amazing, even awe-inspiring, outpouring of love and affection. As his friends and family gathered around his bedside, we held back our tears as we chatted about this and that, played music, held his hands, and massaged his cramping legs and arms. Towards the end, we werent entirely sure Dennis knew we were even there sometimes, but we hoped he did, and hope was all we had.
But it struck me that Dennis was right. In his final days, he was indeed lucky to have so many dear friends and to be surrounded by so very many people who loved and cared about him. That was the way it should have been, for he deserved it.
He was a gentleman in the truest sense of that word -- intelligent, kind-hearted, fair-minded, and perceptive -- who lived his life with dignity and grace, always caring about others around him. Despite the overwhelming physical ailments, he was indeed fortunate to be blessed with so many good traits and to have such a warm and caring family (especially his wife Perveen, daughter Feroza, and parents Bill and Juanita), along with countless supporters and companions.
And for my part, I feel very, very lucky indeed to have known him and called him my friend.