Creating memories eases pain to come

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Saturday, October 21, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

It’s silly how I notice signs, omens, portents that point the way. It was silly to look at a nearly leafless maple and think it an apt symbol. As I drove from my curb to meet Jim Hinton, the bare tree whispered a word everyone fears.

Death.

Forget that. The sign was wrong. Hinton, who is 70 and dying of colon cancer, is as full of life as anyone I’ve encountered. The story I drove to Marysville to hear Thursday is not about death. It is about one man’s life and a daughter’s love.

The facts of Hinton’s life are ordinary. He grew up "in the great state of South Dakota." He started but didn’t finish college. He joined the Navy. He married. He raised four children. He made a living in sales.

To Susan Sellers, there is nothing ordinary about her father.

"He’s a fun one. He’s a kick. To me he’s really interesting," said Sellers, her voice trailing off, her words inadequate to describe the depth of feeling she has for her dad. "I just love him," she said.

When she learned of her father’s advanced cancer, said Sellers, 42, "I wanted to roll up into a ball and scream and cry. There will be time for that."

Father and daughter plan to pack a lifetime of love into the time they have left.

"We are going to London this fall," said Sellers, who lives in Marysville with her husband, Jim, their 7-year-old son and 5-year-old twin daughters.

On Thursday, Hinton sat in his daughter’s kitchen reminding her to go get a passport and laughing at her good-natured gibes about his preference for instant coffee.

A merciless kidder, and clearly his buddy, she told her dad, "Now’s the time to drink fine wine and good coffee."

Hinton is tall and robust looking, with thick gray hair. He wore the khaki-and-checked-shirt uniform of business casual the day we met. Nothing about his appearance gives his condition away.

Life changed suddenly for the family still mourning Hinton’s beloved wife, Rosemary, who died in 1999.

"The way it all started, I was feeling tired. They found out I was anemic. They had to find out why, so I had a colonoscopy," said Hinton, who lives on Camano Island. In late July, he had surgery. In September, tests at the University of Washington Medical Center confirmed his cancer had spread.

Doctors have said he has six months to a year to live. Hinton has chosen not to have chemotherapy.

"Chemo has only about a 50 percent chance of doing anything at all, and it would only give me maybe three months," he said. "Believe me, I’m no hero. If I went through chemo, it would be somewhat unpleasant. I feel good right now. Life is good. I’ve had a very interesting life.

"I’ve got a good family. I had 43 years of marriage. I’ve got more friends than I ever imagined. I have a lady friend who’s really nice. I think I’m a little spiritual."

While staring down death with amazing grace, Hinton, in a nutshell, shared his secrets of life. They are love, friendship, God. And humor, don’t forget humor.

"He has such a funny attitude," Sellers said. "He asked his lady barber, ‘Have you ever considered having an affair with me? If you have, you’ve got to hurry.’ If he’s got all this humor, I feel like an idiot whining and crying."

Hinton has found a spiritual home at St. Cecilia Church in Stanwood, where he is involved in a Catholic faith group that meets regularly. He found friends there in a grief group after his wife’s death. "They became kind of like family," he said.

He joked that his daughter "is not particularly churchy," to which she quipped, "you’re the spiritual leader of the family."

He is also, Sellers said, "the last great letter writer."

"He writes letters to the president of the United States, to his Navy buddies, to everyone. It’s not e-mail; he does the real thing with stamps. And he gets mad when people don’t write back," she said.

She knows, even as her dad sips coffee in her kitchen, that she’ll miss everything about him. The London trip, Sellers said, is part of her "premeditated grief."

"When we go to London," she said, "I’m going to buy myself the most obnoxious pair of pajamas, my moping pajamas." When her father is gone, she’ll hole up in those pj’s and watch videos of him.

Sellers said her mother’s illness came quickly, there wasn’t the time she has now with her father.

"In a way, this is a gift, although not one you’d want to find under your tree. It’s a gift. I can tell him ‘I love you, you’re fun,’ all that stuff you usually don’t get to," she said.

Connie Wittren, director of development for Providence Home Care &amp Hospice of Snohomish County, said Sellers and her father are like many families facing a loved one’s death. The agency helps patients and families through illnesses and bereavement.

"It can bring families together because you know what’s important," Wittren said. "We see this all the time, whether it be a trip or having a Christmas party in July. Those are things that bring families together to share their love.

"What a wonderful thing they are creating together," Wittren said of Sellers and her father. "It will give her a lifetime of memories. These things she’s doing will go directly into her heart; that’s where she’ll keep him.

"You don’t want to wait until it’s too late to say I love you."

Sellers and her father can’t wait. They are running out of time. They are not, however, running out of silliness.

"Laugh if you want, but can you imagine what a horrid resident of a nursing home I’d be?" Jim Hinton asked his daughter. "They’d probably say, ‘Mr. Hinton, we’ve called you a cab.’ "

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