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Two shining examples from which we all can learn

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By Steve Doyle

These are sad days. Loss and grief are everywhere.

People die every day and every week, of course, some more famous than others, and each of you is touched in a unique way by the passing of someone you know, someone you’ve loved or maybe just someone you’ve admired.

This past year has been personally difficult. Our family lost a very dear relative all too quickly, and our grief continues. Friends and former classmates and teammates passed away suddenly. Friends and acquaintances have lost spouses and children. And of course many have lost parents.

Too often in this business a family’s grief becomes a news commodity. People revile reporters for sticking cameras, microphones and notebooks in front of those who are struggling, perhaps sobbing at life’s most painful moment.

Yet those who write these final chapters of human lives struggle with their tasks, to summarize a life in a way that means something to those close to the story and those interested in learning about it.

Almost every reporter will tell you his or her worst day was having to knock on the door of a family who has lost a love one and try to peek inside a life’s final days. They are professionals, but such assignments can leave them in tears, struggling to put what they have learned into context.

Even grizzled veterans of covering police news can become emotional when translating the grief of someone who has passed – even if that person was totally unknown to them.

So it was these past few days that I found myself writing about two deaths of people I had known, that many of you had known, and trying to do so under the microscope of familiarity and respect with which you read my words.

Dr. Don Chatham’s life and legacy in Shelby County are the stuff of history books and textbooks. He served the public long and well, and he left behind a shining example for all of us to follow, no matter our profession, gender or lot in life.

His family is a cornerstone in this community, and his relationships are built deep and firm. His reputation is rich, and in its description  there seems a bottomless opportunity to revel and relate about a man who fought off many illnesses for years beyond his family’s expectations and continued to contribute to his community.

Similarly, Toni Ethington Roberts’ passing on Monday was sad but not surprising, because her days in fighting pancreatic cancer had surpassed the actuarial tables and the likelihoods. Though 30 years younger than Dr. Chatham, her life was rendered by her disease as no less fragile.

And her story is a book.

Roberts, too, left a legacy, sharing of her battles with this disease and the spiritual growth that helped her address it, to become an example for others. She pushed that legacy right up until her last breath.

I had known of Roberts’ book and her disease for several weeks, and I have known her family since Toni was in pigtails, bouncing around the playgrounds and streets of Simpsonville. Her story needed to be told, and I wanted to tell it.

On Friday, after a few storm-related delays, I spoke with Toni’s sister Terry Ethington, her sister Pat Carriss and her daughter Jenifer Steger. They shared awe and joy in what Toni had accomplished and marveled at the strength she had exhibited.

And then I talked to Toni.

Her voice was faint and struggling, but her drug-tempered tenor was firm. She knew what she wanted to say, and she said it. She talked for 10 or 15 minutes, answering questions and chatting idly, the sentences spaced but clear. And then she turned the phone over to Jennifer. She had done all she could.

And her example of what that means is a good one for all of us.

So many times in our lives, we think we’ve done all we could. We try hard to overcome a problem or a situation, and even if we fail, we congratulate ourselves with our effort. We did our best. We did all we could.

For me, that phase has a new meaning today.

Dr. Don Chatham and Toni Roberts have redefined those words for me.

You can only imagine the pain each was enduring these last few months.  They each lived with indescribable pain. Yet each kept giving of themselves until they could give no more.

You can only presume to know how the increasing doses of morphine dulled Roberts’ ability to think, move and cope. Yet she moved to her desk each day and typed her story.

She was by admission no writer. Terry, who helped, says she was no editor. But they persevered and completed and published Toni’s story, a memoir to the masses who face cancer and don’t know how to face it. They set an example.

Chatham and Roberts both are resting more peacefully today. They likely have been  looking down at a struggling typist and smiling at what he is enduring to try to do his best with their stories.

I routinely have attempted to comfort people in a time of loss by telling them that their missions now are to carry on the best of their loved ones, to keep their spirits alive and in our world for as long as possible.

Don Chatham’s and Toni Roberts’ spirits will live on in their friends and families, to be sure, but they would not have been able to guess just how well their best  will live on in the words and deeds of many others.