Connect while you can

Carolyn and Amma

This has been a rough semester.

Three weeks ago today the college’s beloved choral director, Bill Brewer, died after an 18-month battle with cancer.

Yesterday my friend and fellow speech professor Carolyn Buttram died after living with cancer for nearly 20 years.

There’s no way around it. It sucks. But there are aspects around Carolyn’s passing that are sweet, as well as aspects I regret.

Because she first faced breast cancer in 1996, Carolyn has appreciated every minute since. I don’t know if insights from the cancer led her to this, or if it was just her base personality, but Carolyn had no time for fluffy communication. Above all, she was both kind and honest.

When I first went to visit her after she entered hospice care, I had just had a haircut. I had let my hair grow past my shoulders, but decided (for a number of reasons) to cut it into a more standard “business cut.” Carolyn remarked on it almost as soon as I got in her living room.

“You got a haircut!” she said. “Great! Now you don’t look like a bum!” And she said it with such joy and sunshine, as she did with everything, that I felt good about it.

Over the five or six years that we knew each other, we connected on several levels, sharing an interest in meditation, taking a similar approach to life, supporting each other in life challenges. It was typical of Carolyn that even as she faced the ending of her life (and at the time I didn’t know she was looking to that), she thought of me and my concerns for my severely disabled daughter, passing on literature that she thought might be helpful.

I wish I had spent more time just in conversation with her. I could have learned so much.

Here’s one of my regrets: Carolyn talked with me more than once about the National Speakers Association, and especially about the Tennessee chapter. We had planned to attend one of the local meetings more than once. We never got around to it. Carolyn was quite comfortable on stage, an effective speaker (which is not always the case for a speech teacher) who sought to extend her own speechcraft. She successfully pulled off standup comedy, one of the most challenging forms of stage performance.

Here’s another regret: I have been toying with the idea of starting a podcast focused on effective communication. I’ve learned about podcasting through collaborating on another one, and I think it could be a real service. I had intended to do the first episode with Carolyn, because she understood a lot about practical aspects of speaking. I wanted to share her wisdom with the world. But I waited too long.

Just before Spring Break she missed a couple of days of class because of becoming ill. While I was in Boston for a conference, we heard that she had received news that her cancer had spread, and that she was receiving hospice care at home. (I knew she had spinal surgery last fall, but didn’t realize it was connected to a reoccurrence.) Four of us each took over one of Carolyn’s classes–I met those students for the first time on March 16.

She was told she likely had four to six months of life left, and she made arrangements to visit with people, read, listen to music, etc. She remained hopeful, though–she had gone into remission more than once, and people do leave hospice care by that route, though it is rare. I believed if anyone could do so, Carolyn could.

Stupidly, between the four-to-six-month timeline and her levels of energy (she felt good, she said, but could only manage to do things for about an hour), I thought I could finish the semester and then sit down with her for a long interview to be cut up into several podcast episodes.

On March 27 I visited with Carolyn, and she said her liver tests were almost normal, her energy was good, she was feeling good, but her legs were weak, so she was going to start some exercises to strengthen them. I later learned that the very next day she lost the use of her legs. By the time of our next scheduled visit (we were visiting every Friday morning), she was spending most of every day asleep under the 24-hour care of her daughters, both of whom had arrived.

We didn’t visit on Friday, but I made arrangements to visit on Monday morning to bring some music CDs. However, something told me I needed to get over there sooner, so last Sunday afternoon I took the CDs over and spent a little time. Carolyn roused once, and smiled a little, but never opened her eyes. Sometime between 7 and 8 a.m. Monday she left us.

I am glad I went early. I am sad I waited too late to record her wisdom for communication.

In the last few months, Carolyn was justifiably proud that her book had been published and available on Amazon. Though I failed to do the recording I wanted, she did what so many say they want to do that so few ever actually manage: she published something for posterity. I will review it later this week, since during one of our last conversations she gave me a copy. (She also co-authored a textbook on interpersonal communication that remains impressive today, though I think out of print.)

The four-to-six months I thought I had for talking with Carolyn turned out to be less than a month.

Connect. Don’t wait. Whether it’s a month or 20 years or 80 years, we don’t have forever.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.