From the Editor: Portrait of a rescuer who never stopped caring

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Phyllis E. Johnson sits on the front steps of her Berne house, holding two of her beloved cats.

Phyllis Johnson and I were both diagnosed with cancer this past spring. She died on Friday. I am still here, and wishing she were, too. It’s not fair.

I first met Phyllis when she walked into our newsroom after I’d written a series of stories and editorials on two elderly sisters who loved cats but had taken too many strays into their tiny trailer to properly care for them. After their arrest, many people scorned them, but not Phyllis.

She did not know the sisters, but she could empathize with them. She had brought to the newsroom a box she wanted me to give them. Among other things, it contained small toy cats the sisters could keep in their pockets, to comfort them since their own real cats had been taken away.

That gift exemplified some of Phyllis’s greatest qualities. She thought for herself — never mind if most everyone else condemned someone — and she could understand how other people felt, even strangers. She helped them when they needed it. She made a difference.

Phyllis put that understanding to brilliant use each week as she wrote a column for the Helderberg Seniors that spoke to universal topics. She told me, “I’ve always loved books and words … You can create worlds with words … Books were my best friends. They were always there for me.”

Phyllis stopped writing her column after her cancer diagnosis and told me, “My first inclination was seige mentality — pull up the drawbridge. But then I realized, it’s not good to keep it all to yourself; it’s not healthy.”

She also said, “I wanted to be as up-front and open as you were. I’m deliberately and loudly contradicting the impulse to whimper and run away and hide. Yes, it’s Stage 4; it’s in the lungs, the lymph nodes, the bones.”

And, showing her practical side, Phyllis went on, “Anyway, it’s futile to hide it; it will be obvious. Besides, if I found out someone I care about didn’t trust me enough to tell me, I would be terribly hurt.”

After Berne celebrated Phyllis Johnson Day on July 22, honoring all she had done for the community, a man I didn’t know approached me in the grocery store as I shopped and added to the many stories about Phyllis that had been shared that day. He had once complained to Phyllis that he was bored in his retirement and quipped maybe he’d do something different, like learn Swahili.

Phyllis had responded to his quip in Swahili.

As far-reaching as her knowledge was, I had to ask her how she knew a Bantu language from Africa. She said that, in 1962, when she was 14, her grandmother rented out rooms to graduate students at Syracuse University. One of them, a student in African studies, spoke Swahili and she learned it from him. She never gave up an opportunity to learn, to understand someone else.

By August, Phyllis was traveling to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan for chemo every three weeks. “I’ll do it until they stop working or I can’t handle it anymore,” she said of the treatments. “I’m not looking at a cure; they’re keeping things at bay as long as possible.”

She also said, “Attitude is everything. Most of the time, it’s not what actually happens; it’s what you do with it.”

Phyllis then recited a poem by Frank Dempster Sherman:

 

It is my joy in life to find

At every turning of the road,

The strong arm of a comrade kind

To help me onward with my load.

 

And since I have no gold to give,

And love alone must make amends,

My only prayer is, while I live, —

God make me worthy of my friends!

 

Phyllis said her current role was odd for her, being taken care of by her friends. “I’m the rescuer,” she said. “I’m the one who saves the day.”

The next month, she said, “I still go through my gratitude list: I have a roof over my head, food in the fridge, good friends, little pussy-cats who love me.”

The last time I spoke to her, Phyllis told me, “It’s not like you have the option of living forever. Being in emergency services, I’ve known that for decades. Your life can change in an instant. I’m just incredibly fortunate to have been in the condition I’m in when the bad news arrived.”

How did Phyllis maintain her courage — her sense of gratitude for life — as she looked death in the eye?

I listened to the words she had spoken in an April podcast, before her diagnosis, and just before my own. We’d just returned from a writers’ conference, where Phyllis was as feisty and tenacious as ever.

Phyllis had told me a story then that seemed to me to be the heart of her. When she was 6, her father, who worked as a clerk at city hall in Syracuse, was ill with bronchial asthma and emphysema. He was set to be transferred to work in an old building with dust and fumes. Phyllis, an only child, overheard her parents talking: Her father’s doctor had said the change in his workplace would likely kill him.

Phyllis was a latchkey child and, when she got home from school the next day, she called city hall and asked to speak to the commissioner of public works. She explained her father would die if he were transferred. “I didn’t want my daddy to die,” said Phyllis.

Phyllis was outraged, she said, when the commissioner asked, “Did your daddy tell you to call me?”

“No! If he knew I called, my daddy would spank me,” she answered.

She concluded, “The commissioner didn’t transfer him. That was my first real lesson in community activism, in the power of a single individual to make a difference.”

And that is how Phyllis lived her life — making a difference. I wrote this poem about it:

 

Salute To An Activist

 

When Phyllis was a little girl

She saved — alone — her father’s life.

She’d heard her parents talk one night.

The words they said cut like a knife.
 

His lungs were bad. His boss had said

He’d have to work in a dusty place.

His doctor warned the fumes would kill.

She called his boss and made her case.
 

Her father stayed where he had been,

And Phyllis learned — at six — her strength:

She helped the poor and hurting, too;

Her care would go to any length.
 

She loves her books, and writes her words

To make the world a better place.

She’s spread her love to those in need

With strident wit and quiet grace.

 

Phyllis also told me in that April conversation, when we were both innocent of cancer, about her love of firefighters who “are nuts.” “They will keep going in until the entire fire is knocked down or until they fall down.” She said, in order to get them to rest, for their own good, “You have to pull someone off the fire line … you take their boots or they’ll slip away from you to fight the fire.”

Phyllis herself apparently wasn’t sidelined from the fire, the passion, that fueled her in writing her column. Her dear friend Melissa Worden who, with her family, tended Phyllis throughout her illness, brought me one last column Phyllis had composed — on writing an obituary.

We are printing it here.

Phyllis’s boots are off. But her words will carry on.

More Letters to the Editor