Monday, January 10, 2011


JO CURRAN - Soldier, Adventurer, Mother, World Traveller, Mentor to the Fortunate, Friend to the Privileged. Married three times. Secretary of the INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF TOUR MANAGERS (U.S. Branch). Founder of WAYWARD WOMEN. A remarkable woman of true courage, who truly understood  the meaning and the wonder of life; and lived it at full throttle, on her own terms - right to the end.

Jo died on December 22 2010. She was 68. I haven’t felt much like posting since the occasion - nearly three weeks ago now – not that it feels that way. But yesterday two Memorial receptions were held to mark Jo’s passing, so it’s time to move forward; or it will be after I have described her actual death, and its aftermath, in more detail.

It may seem strange to say this, but Jo had a very good death; and its manner enriched us all. Indeed, her passing personified the good sense and humanity behind the DEATH WITH DIGNITY ACT.

Nonetheless, I will freely admit that I was, and remain, much affected by it. 

Jo’s Death
The following is the text of an email I wrote to a close friend of Jo’s who was away in Italy.

"Hi Sara--

"Jo remained cheerful, feisty and very, very funny until right to the end. She even stipulated that (her daughter) Penny buy Kool-Aid to mix her barbiturates in. We then all gathered just before 11.00 am, stood in a semi circle around Jo's bed and she joked and chatted with us until 11.30. I had initially arrived dressed a little more formally than was my custom around Jo; and she sent me back to change into the clothes she was used to seeing me in. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry - but I did as ordered.   

"At 11.30, she asked Penny and me to move her into a sitting position - as we had been doing every morning for the past weeks - normally prior to moving her to her chair (a truly horrendous ordeal for Jo which took considerable time - but which she insisted on doing). On this occasion we merely had to keep her supported while she drank. We then lowered her down when she requested it, and she started saying a few words to each of us while the drug took effect. She then said something like she was sorry I had lost my chance to get her into bed! She was incorrigible to the end.

"She didn't manage to speak to us all. The drug took effect within a couple of minutes. We then all stood there for nearly half an hour while her breathing grew more and more ragged until finally she was silent. Pat Downs. a hospice nurse for many years, then pronounced her dead. Penny, crying, had stroked her mother's hand the entire time and looked bereft but in control. She had been magnificent throughout.

"People have decidedly mixed views about DEATH WITH DIGNITY but Jo's medical condition was fatal, the timing imminent and she was in terrible pain despite all the medication. Further, her condition was visibly deteriorating. Indeed on Monday, for the first time she screamed when we were moving her. The error had been mine. I had failed to lower my hand exactly in sync with hers when she started to sit down. I was focused on trying to keep her chair steady. I gather I went as white as a sheet. Pain wracked though she was, Jo then apologized for scaring me.   

"Jo hated the bathroom aspects of her condition - though it mattered not a whit to either Penny or myself - but though she thought adult diapers and the like were humiliating, in truth she never lost her dignity for a second.

"A truly magnificent rainbow appeared shortly after she died. It wasn't shaped in the normal curve but was shorter and pretty much pointed straight up into the sky.

"I suspect that one way or another Jo will be with us all until we too, embark on the same journey. It would be a fine thing if we could do it with as much grace, dignity and humor.

"Jo told me directly that you were very special to her - and I know you felt exactly the same way. But we shouldn't feel sorrow at her passing. She did the right thing, in the right way and at the right time - and she was in control until right to the end; which is exactly what she wanted. She died surrounded by friends in her own bed and there was much laughter in that last half hour.

"That said, though I'm sure there is more that I could tell you, I can't write further without crying.

"Have a marvelous Christmas with Riccardo. Raise a glass to Jo. She'll be watching over you." 

"Send me a sign when you cross over to the other side?"
"I will, though I'm not sure you'll recognize it."

The rainbow that appeared shortly after Jo died.

The Memorial for Jo at Spinnaker Bay
Spinnaker Bay in Rainier Beach is the 72 apartment condominium complex where Jo lived in a book-lined two bedroom apartment overlooking Lake Washington since 1994. She loved the place, had many friends there and reveled in the sense of community the condo offers. The memorial was organized by my friend, Chris Carrdus, who manages the site together with the president of the complex, Barbara Chamberlain. It was well attended.

A feature of Jo’s passing – despite the sadness we all feel – has been a sense of ‘rightness’ about the whole affair. One of Jo’s friends, the retired hospice nurse, Pat Downs - and a fellow member of Jo's Honor Guard, remarked that although Jo was a meticulous researcher and planner, she also had that invaluable quality of being able to get the most out of every day, and to improvise if necessary on the spot. Accordingly, if Jo was involved, things tended to just fall into place regardless of the unexpected. Jo could just get things to work – an invaluable talent given that she made her living as a tour director and travelled to many parts of the globe where the kind of services the West takes for granted just don’t exist. In fact, Jo had visited 358 degrees of the Earth’s 360 degrees of longtitude and has delegated her granddaughter, equipped with half of her ashes to visit the last two degrees on her behalf. As to where the balance of her ashes will go, suffice to say that, yet again, Jo’s sense of humor, has prevailed.

The non-denominational Memorial took place in the condo’s club house. Though unscripted, virtually all her friends spoke – most telling humorous anecdotes (items in virtually endless supply where Jo was concerned). The atmosphere then became decidedly more electric when those of us at the memorial, who were present at her death – her ‘honor guard,’ as she put it - were asked to describe it. What struck me forcibly during that process was how much our recollections differed despite the fact we were all in the same room at the same time and the entire process lasted little more than an hour. We didn’t differ on the fundamentals of course, but had decided differences in terms of timing and detail. This is a well known phenomenom which makes one wonder if there is a definitive history of anything. I rather think not; and these few words are no more than impressions.

Perhaps the most striking words were spoken by one of Jo’s doctor’s, Dr. Monica Campo. She articulated the reality that despite modern drugs and surgery, all too often she and her colleagues cannot do much other than stand by while patient after patient dies in pain and uncertainty; and then she contrasted Jo’s determination to take charge of her own end and the vivid impression it had made on her – to the point of changing her mind about how the manner of our dying should be approached. In truth I’m not conveying the spirit of Dr. Campo’s words adequately. What I can say is that they were expressed with great clarity and compassion – and we were all much affected by what we heard.

Being neither wayward (perhaps a debatable point) nor a woman, I didn’t attend the second memorial which was held in her friend artist Sondra Shira’s remarkable house for the members of the organization she, Jo, had founded, Wayward Women – but I heard it went equally well. The name can be interpreted several ways, as befits Jo’s sense of humor, but essentially it refers, not to sexual behavior, but to women who travel widely and alone. Some of their journeys are truly extraordinary. Without doubt, in addition to living life to the full, and having had enough adventures to put Indiana Jones to shame, the woman had impressive friends. One of them, Nicki Riley, a fellow tour director, said that when Jo had been asked to send a sign after she made it over to “the other side;” she had replied. “I will, but I’m not sure you’ll recognize it.” As it happened a truly beautiful rainbow appeared shortly after Jo’s death – and, as you can see from the photo, appears to point skyward. A coincidence or Jo’s message? That is for you to decide.

One wild and previous life?
Jo had a couple of favorite quotes which are very typical of her:

“The most important kind of freedom is to be who you really are.”  Jim Morrison

"Tell me what it is you that you plan to do with your one wild and previous life? A ship is safe in port, but that is not what ships are for?"  Mary Oliver.

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