I don’t remember the last time, if ever, that I ran three memorial posts in such close succession, but I wanted to mark the passing of my friend Carol Welsh (b. 1970) on the morning of Wednesday, December 29, 2021. Carol died of complications sustained over a 21-year struggle with a brain tumor, a recurrent ependymoma malignant by location.
Carol and I met in college back in 1990: our dorm rooms were adjacent to each other in a cul-de-sac at the end of Lockhart Hall. She pulled me out of the isolation and depression from which I suffered at the time, and brought me, lunch date by lunch date, back into the land of the living. We remained friends for the next thirty-one years. The first decade of our friendship, in our twenties, was pretty carefree in the way of twenty-somethings: pleasant meals punctuated by dessert, coffee, and complaints about the sins of the significant others we were involved with at any given time. (Carol’s caustic-immortal comment on the love scene in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman“: “That’s it? That’s all she gets for being the French Lefffffftenant’s woman?”)
Things changed in the spring of 2000 when Carol was diagnosed–after a few misdiagnoses–with her brain tumor, an initially life-threatening and eventually life-altering medical condition. She spent the next twenty-one years engaged in a relentless, full-time battle against it, a struggle which became the new underpinning of our friendship. Carefree chatter in cafes and restaurants gave way to more urgent matters in hospitals and at the annual Race for Hope in DC. We all gave what we could in the way of support–her family above all–but ultimately, the struggle was hers. She was the one who endured and survived.*
Our last meeting took place in July 2021, just before she went into hospice (or rather, hospice came to her, as she convalesced at home). She asked me, in our very last conversation, to read to her from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying. I read her the first few pages, and we spent the rest of our time together discussing it.
She seemed relieved to be able to discuss the topic of death without euphemism or circumlocution, something she said that her health care providers were generally unable to do. Medicine for them was about victories over illness; death was the unspeakable defeat. I myself was mourning the loss of my wife to suicide just five months earlier, and looking for a way to come to terms with it. And so we spoke candidly about death, in the knowledge that our conversation would likely be our last one, our final good-bye to each other. From an outsider’s perspective, our conversation might well have seemed morbid, almost literally so. But to me it felt more like a meeting of minds, the culmination of a lifetime’s friendship, the best ending we could have hoped for.
It was Aristotle who made battlefield valor the paradigm of courage in Western civilization, a paradigm disputed at times, but never fully displaced. That militarized conception of courage has always seemed to me to be a mistake: there are, after all, ways of facing danger that involve struggling for life rather than taking it. That’s what Carol did, surgery after surgery, procedure after procedure, rehab after rehab, for twenty years. In doing so she taught me what courage really is, replacing the military paradigm with a more humanly appropriate one.
Carol spent more than two decades fighting hard for life, but accepted death with grace when it came. If a life can be likened to a piece of music, her song ended not with a fanfare but on a rest. The melody had its moments of sweet and bittersweet, its changes of mood and tempo, but no bitterness. It reverberates within me still as I come to grips with her absence.
*The “inside story” of Carol’s struggle is better told from the first-person perspective than the third. See the many blog posts and other resources on her website, “Adult Ependyomoma: A Patient’s Story.” See also her National Cancer Institute interview, “Surviving Life-Altering Effects of a Brain Tumor,” and “Onward: An Ability to Persevere and Overcome,” about life with a chronic tracheostomy tube. I’ve previously written about Carol in this post at PoT, with references to newspaper items about her misdiagnosis. Her Caring Bridge site.