We were all asking the wrong questions.
When everyone heard about Deborah Marshall’s headaches, which turned into an emergency room visit in April of 2012, understandably we asked: What’s wrong?
Then, when we learned she had surgery to attack a malignant brain tumor, the number of questions grew: Could she recover? Would she? And, more fundamentally: How could this happen to her, of all people?
The latter question was near-universal. Anyone who knew Debbie was dumbfounded. At age 48, in seemingly good health, such a thunderclap illness is enough of a shock.
But for this to happen to Debbie? How was that even possible?
It really came down to the age-old question, asked by the faithful and faith-challenged alike: Why do bad things happen to good people?
In this case, the “bad thing” was glioblastoma multiform. The “good people” is former Columbia County Elections Director Debbie Marshall, who was as close as anyone I’ve ever met to being universally loved.
For Debbie to be stricken with that particular brain cancer was almost like giving the death sentence to a saint. Actually, it’s worse than that: glioblastoma is nastier than a death sentence. At least with the death penalty there are opportunities for appeals. Not only that, people on death row typically live several years before the execution is carried out, and during that time they’re fed and cared for, safe and in good health.
Those with a diagnosis of glioblastoma typically are told they’ll have perhaps 12 to 14 months to live. Their only appeals are to their maker for divine intervention, because earthly medicine hasn’t yet figured out a way to have much success in beating the aggressive tumor that forms from the brain’s own cells. And often the quality of life in those lingering months can be less than favorable. In Debbie’s case, she was rendered speechless, immobile, bedridden – imprisoned in a dwindling earthly shell until, this past Friday, her kind soul departed roughly 15 months after her diagnosis.
It’s hard to express relief at someone’s passing, but it’s also entirely natural when that person’s departure eases their suffering. In Debbie’s case, she seemed to have found release after her devoted husband, Lee, told her on Thursday that she didn’t need to be worried about him or their three children. Eased of that burden, she left the next day.
Though in reality she’d left us in April 2012, the finality of her passing on July 26, 2013 still was a heart–wrenching blow. Everyone likes the story where the hero miraculously is cured, and this wasn’t one of those stories. This was the story where the much–loved heroine is stricken, fades and dies. No one likes that story. And no one wanted to lose Debbie – especially not to a slow–motion killer that forced her loved ones to wait for the inevitable demise that they couldn’t accept.
Yet something remarkable happened during that journey: The question changed. Rather than asking “Why Debbie?” the question became: What is it about Debbie that makes everyone hold her in such high regard? What example has she set that we could follow?
For public officials, the answer seems fairly obvious. Debbie was devoted to her job and to Columbia County, not only serving capably and competently but with a pleasant, customer–friendly demeanor. We’ve all experienced the hard–nosed bureaucrat; that wasn’t Debbie. She demonstrated what government service should be, setting an example that continues with the office that forever will be hers.
For her friends – and I am honored and humbled to consider myself one – the answer is no more complicated. Being a friend is more than just being friendly; it’s demonstrating genuine interest and caring in others.
Her successor, Nancy Gay, told me about a random act of kindness in which Debbie stopped one day to buy a bottle of water for someone standing outside on a sweltering summer day holding a sign. “Yep, that was Deb,” she said.
Rare was the conversation with Debbie that she didn’t ask about my children, and then tell me about hers. She was very proud of her family, and had a knack for making you feel that she was just as proud of yours. She really cared.
That’s the example she set for everyone. And that’s why it’s so unspeakably hard to know that we’ll never again on this earth hear her pleasant voice, see her beautiful smile or share her generous hug.
Yet as hard as it is to lose Debbie, it remains an absolute joy and privilege to have known her. None of us escape the finality of our departure from this earth, but all of us have the opportunity to follow Debbie’s example of being, and doing, good.
How can we do better? That’s the question we need to ask. And Debbie, God rest her loving soul, has already provided us with the answer.
(Barry L. Paschal, former publisher of The Columbia County News–Times, now serves as senior director of marketing and communications for Goodwill Industries of Middle Georgia and the CSRA.)