Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

By Sue Fretwell

Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

My 88-year-old friend, Hilda, exemplified positive thinking. She loved to laugh and to hear others laugh. One of her favorite songs (and her life philosophy) was the chirpy reggae tune by Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”…and, to my great good fortune, one of her special projects toward that end, for over 40 years, was ME.

We met in 1970, through our spouses. I knew her as “Sam,” a nickname given her by her husband, Asa, when she learned to golf back in the 40s. We were 21 years apart in age and as different as could be. She was the consummate Southern gal, fun-loving, outgoing, glamorous and colorful. I was a northerner, and back then, rather serious and introverted.

On the outside, it would seem Sam had little to laugh about after Asa died, leaving her alone in her late 70s, with her own meager Social Security to live on. But she never bothered others with financial, emotional or health problems. She described an evening with fellow residents of her low-income senior complex, saying that as they told tales of their ailments and aches and pains, someone turned to Sam and asked, “What about you, Hilda, Don’t YOU have any ailments?” She replied emphatically, “None that I talk about!”

Her many friends and a beloved niece far away in England were her only family. We loved her philosophical nature and outspokenness and could always count on her to provide no-nonsense guidance for whatever issues we had. She imparted her strength and wisdom to me in weekly phone chats, always stressing that things don’t just “work out,” but that WE must work them out. Her main mission, however, was to instigate laughter and promote the joy of living.

Last November Sam became ill after not feeling well for almost a year. Chronic bronchitis, the doctor she eventually fired thought. But it was not bronchitis. Advanced lung cancer…a matter of weeks was the diagnosis.

Even as she faced her final days in a run-down nursing home on a coastal island far from her friends, she still found and created reasons to laugh and rejoice. She brought new life into the place, though her own would end just ten weeks later. She’d never stepped foot in the home prior to her illness, but she’d told me for the past nine years. “When it’s my time, there’s where I will go!” She cared only about spending her last days “at the beach,” even though what little beach view the home had enjoyed a decade ago was now obliterated by beachfront condos.

A Google search revealed the home to be the lowest ranked in the state and the subject of an ongoing investigation. Touring it before her move I was reduced to uncontrollable tears. Sam stood her ground, however, when I tried presenting other options and pointed out that she couldn’t see the beach from there.

“But I shall see the sea birds flying overhead, and I shall feel the ocean breeze,” she pronounced.

Amazingly, Sam came alive the day she went to the nursing home, emaciated after two horrific weeks in the hospital. “The ride over was just wonderful!” she gloried, as I met her and the hired transport she’d insisted on using…a badly battered Buick driven by a rough looking woman with two kids in tow. From her wheelchair in the parking lot, eyes twinkling, she chortled, “Can you believe it? I’m finally living at the beach!”

The dreary room was not made up and half of it was piled with the belongings of a departed resident, the first of many upsetting discoveries for her friends. But looking out the window, Sam cheered at seeing a palm tree through the banged up blinds hanging at odd angles. Two large stern-faced nurses came in and told her to strip so they could do a skin check. I turned my back, but kept a listening ear. Unfazed, it didn’t take long before Sam had them both laughing and cracking jokes. Later, these two became her best advocates, even risking their own positions by confronting the administrators on her behalf.

Many bad things happened over the next two months, but even then Sam did not want to be relocated to the posh Hospice facility when we tried to convince her. Always, she focused on the positive and found a reason to make laughter happen. When the end became imminent, we were amazed at the steady stream of tearful staff members and residents who came into her room throughout the day, giving her hugs and kisses and saying their heartfelt goodbyes.

In the seven months since Sam left us, remarkable things have happened. The nursing home staff joined with her friends to organize a beautification of the home’s courtyard in her honor. The donations and enthusiasm were such that it grew into a major landscaping project and will soon bear a plaque in Sam’s name. The friends befriended each other, as well as the staff and patients. Both residents and workers have expressed great joy in the improved quality of their environment. In a place where there were few smiles, now there are many.

Sam requested that any money left in her meager account be given to the local Tree Society. She donated her body to a local medical college, giving new insights and knowledge to others, even after death. Probably not much laughter there, but that is for her friends, old and new, to carry on. She would insist on it.

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.

About this writer

  • Sue Fretwell Sue Fretwell’s photographs and articles have appeared for about three years in the now online Southcoast Magazine, www.southcoastnc.com. She has photographed and published the Southport Calendar for the past 4 years and is a retired teacher of English as a Second Language. As a founder of a 100+ member singles group in Southport, Sue has a passion for sharing her 20 years of experiences and ideas for living a full and rewarding single life.

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10 Responses to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”

  1. Pam Martin says:

    Loved this story thefirst time you read it at the meeting. Congrats on getting it published! Pam

  2. Tina says:

    Beautiful story. Moved me to tears. Please publish more by this author.

  3. Peg Anderson says:

    Sue, Great job! Glad to be a friend!!

  4. Mary Ames says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Sue. I loved it — AND Sam!

    Best wishes,

    Mary : )

  5. Carol Ashford says:

    What a beautiful article!! How fortunate that Sue was in her life and able to pass on her spirit to all of us who read this.

  6. Ning Sullivan says:

    A beautiful article -making me want to be a better person. Thank you, Sue.

  7. Donna Frenkel says:

    What an inspiring, well-written story. Please publish more by Sue.

  8. Liz McStay says:

    Wonderful story and a pleasure to make a new friend. Liz

  9. Diane Ludman says:

    Hey Sue,

    I’m a friend of Lesley Symes and she has told me about you for years and thought that we should meet at some point. She refers to us as “twins”. I get your calender each year and love your photos. I’m also a writer and a divorced single. Sounds like you have a great singles group in Southport. I’m in Charlotte and love the time I spend in Southport when visiting Les. I look forward to meeting you and just sitting and talking about our life events. I love the article you wrote about your friend Sam. I have a very dear friend who is now in her late 70’s and we all call her the “wise woman” and our “angel friend”. I don’t know what I would do without her in my life. She is my mentor and most giving friend. She was there with me through the months and years after my 22-year-old son died in an auto accident on his way to the beach in August 2002. You’re friend Sam sounds so much like my friend Helen. Look forward to meeting you on my next trip to visit Les.

    Sincerely,
    Diane Ludman

  10. Peg says:

    What a special tribute to a incredible woman!
    She surely lives with you and through you each day of your life. That is pretty incredible!! You were lucky to have her for all those years, so thanks for sharing her with us for a while. Great article, sweet friend.
    Peg

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