Phyllis Walters Gladu 9/30/23 – 5/22/94

Phyllis Walters Gladu             9/30/23 – 5/22/94

Mom, it’s been 20 years…

So much has happened, so much has changed (and some things never change). Amanda’s going to grad school in the fall. She is every bit the artist you were, and we’re going to find out if she’s every bit the model builder you were as she studies theater design. You knew Madeline was on the way, but never met her. She’s going to finish college a year early! (A far cry from either of us; oh, by the way, I graduated from college last year, too!) Your grandchildren are amazing – I know you would be proud. I’ve tried to teach them who you were, and what kind of person you were, through words and example, but I wish you could have done it in person.

I’m still hauling around the train-load of stuff that’s accumulated over the years, and it’s occurred to me that my pack-rat nature comes from both you and Dad – children of the Great Depression – who saved everything because there was so little back then. There was always a chance that something would be needed again, and that something turned into anything and then everything. So Mike and I are sitting on our collected stuff, as well as all of yours. It does help when we need props for a show…

The theater! You would have loved it. I can only imagine…

You’ve missed so much.
And I miss you so much.

20 years without my favorite confidant and advisor.

20 years of trying to follow your example, but without you around to gently tell me when I might not be doing it right.

You’d be telling me to get back to work now.
Okay… ttyl…



This is the eulogy from her memorial service in June, 1994


My mother had progressive pulmonary fibrosis. Her lung volume was roughly half of “normal”. And the remaining tissue was stiff from the disease. That’s what caused her continual cough, going back to February of ’93. While most of us looked at “progressive” as a slow process, she didn’t, and wanted to go on a trip the way Mike did – just get in the car and go. It would also give her an opportunity to visit family and old friends in the northeast before it was too late.

So she went on a trip with Mike as he covered the Tour DuPont bicycle race through the eastern states, for the bicycle magazine Velo News. After the race they were going to visit friends and relations back in New York and the surrounding areas. In Asheville, a town of 80,000 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina she came up so short of breath that she could barely walk, and she was coughing up small amounts of blood. Her daily diary mentioned that she tried to clean the windshield on the van, and couldn’t do more than one side.

Rebecca got a call asking for advice and told Mom to go to the emergency room. She checked into Mission Central Hospital on Thursday, May twelfth, and left a gasping message on my Baylor voice-mail on Friday telling me that she was okay, that she’d led a full life, and that I shouldn’t come up there. If I’d said the same thing to her, she’d have been there sooner. Saturday, we booked the first available flight, and took the 8am flight on Sunday.

Her room in the hospital was in what they call a “step-down” unit – a step down from intensive care. If intubation were called for, she would have been there, but her lungs were too stiff for intubation – they could have popped from the force of a ventilator.

She didn’t seem particularly surprised to see us. She had on an oxygen mask covering her mouth and nose and the mask had two long “tusks” of fat, blue tubing, one coming out of each side to give more available volume for when she inhaled. The patients that you see in public, with their small, green bottles of oxygen and a nasal canulla are using between 4 and 8 liters per minute of oxygen. The flow into her mask was 70 liters per minute, and the roar of the oxygen through the mask and tubing was constant. The TV was always on, with the volume turned up so it could be heard over the noise from the oxygen system. IVs, catheter, and a pulse-oxymeter on one finger to measure her heart rate and oxygenation fill out the rest of the image. Her pulse was around 115, and her oxygenation was around 75%.

You or I would read 95 to 100%. Any physical effort reduced the percentage of oxygen indicated, and a coughing spell would leave her struggling to get her oxygen levels back up to where she didn’t feel constantly short of breath.

She’d been on 100% oxygen for three days at this point. While you can’t live without oxygen, your lungs are only used to dealing with the 21% found in normal air. Pure oxygen is toxic over time. The longer she stayed on pure oxygen, the worse it would be for her lungs. She was allergic to most antibiotics. They found one that didn’t kill her outright, but it didn’t appear to help either. The doctor had her on huge doses of sterioids and on Lasix, to try and dry her lungs out, and fed her intravenously, to give her the energy to keep breathing. It was very hard for her to eat.

Sleep was almost impossible, with the constant parade of nurses, the mask sliding around, and the din of the oxygen and TV. Medication to help her sleep would also depress her breathing, so it was ruled out. She dozed fitfully, occasionally waking herself up as she talked in her sleep. Her eyes would suddenly snap into focus and she’d ask “What?!” I told her I didn’t know “what”, and that I wouldn’t give her brother any oil.

She did show improvement. By Tuesday her pulse oxymeter was going as high as 94%, but her blood-gas oxygen level (the true measurement) was still only 55%. Coughing spasms reduced the pulse-ox to around 70%. We worked out a ritual for me to feed her yogurt and ice cream with a spoon, while she moved the mask out of the way. I cut a little flap in the mask through which we could insert a straw, so that she could drink things without taking off the mask. Even eating dropped the oxygen levels.

When the indicator was 80 per cent or over, she was comfortable. And as long as she didn’t cough the percentage stayed in the high eighties and low nineties throughout the day.

Hopefully, I made calls to the airlines to see if they could supply oxygen for a passenger. The best they could do was 8 liters/minute through a nasal canula. I figured it would take at least a week of improvement to get to that level.

But her numbers plateaued on Wednesday, and then started to fall by about five percent each day. By Friday evening the numbers were pretty low, but steady, hovering around 70 per cent. The evidence still wasn’t enough to convince me that she was failing. Saturday morning it was 60 per cent. Convinced, I called Rebecca and Dad to tell them to get there as soon as possible.

Late on Saturday afternoon she asked “Where’s the phone book?”
I asked back “What do you want it for?”
She said “You don’t wanna know.”
After a moment of thought, I said “I can look up funeral homes for you.”
She said “Cremation!”
I said “Okay”.
She was still lucid, but I made the calls for her.

They said $450 – cash, plus $3 per death certificate. I’d have to go to an ATM. I asked her if we could get money back from the Discover Card for a cash withdrawal. She said no; but I got a grin out of her for the effort…

Her coughing spasms were dropping her oxygenation into the 40’s and 50’s, and she was having to work for 5 to 10 minutes with clenched fists to get back up to the 60%s. It was rare to hit 70 per cent.

Father Frank from St. Eugene’s, in Asheville, came by around 2 o’clock. He said that the Catholic Church doesn’t do “the Last Rites” anymore, chats for awhile, tells us to call if we need anything, and performs the “annointing of the sick”. This seemed to make her less anxious…

When I left for the airport at 9:15 to pick up Reb and Dad, I wasn’t sure that they’d be in time… and then their flight was delayed (which is another story) and we didn’t get back to the hospital until a little after 11pm.

She was still hanging in there. Mike was in the room, back from the race he’d covered that day in Georgia. But her pulse-ox was in the low 50%s. She responded to things that Rebecca and Dad said in what seemed like true awareness…

The doctor had okayed giving her tiny doses of Valium and morphine to ease her discomfort. Did it matter if they depressed her breathing a little? Not anymore. Her coughing finally went away for good.

We all stayed in the room, taking turns trying to make her more comfortable.

She got pretty confused, was talking to herself, and even tried to get out of bed “to leave” at one point (hypoxia makes for confusion).

Around 2am (Sunday), I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to pull an all-nighter, and I might as well try to get some sleep. Rebecca had been up since really early, back in Houston. So Rebecca, Mike and I went to the motel, leaving instructions to call us if her blood-pressure dropped. Dad stayed with her.

At around 5:15 in the morning we got the call. Rebecca may have made it to Mom’s room before she breathed her last, but I had to park the car (free parking at Mission Central kept us out of bankruptcy court). The nurse said 5:30. I got there at 5:33. Her struggle for breath was over…

Before I left Houston, after she said that she was quite satisfied with her life and didn’t mind dying in such a pretty place I thought she was being defeatist about it all. Now, I find comfort in those words. All-in-all, this wasn’t too bad a way to go for someone with such a miserable disease. She avoided repeat visits to the ER and the possibility of months on a ventilator, unable to talk.

Reb and I got back to our motel room around 9am, thought about going back to sleep, and decided to drive up to Roanoke to visit Heidi and Mark instead. It seemed reasonable to try to salvage something from the expense of this “vacation”. The 200 mile drive was relentlessly gorgeous, on some of the same roads that my mother had been over with Mike while covering the race. Mountains, lush greenery, cool temperatures – a wonderful path for a final journey.

While Mike was shooting the race on thousands of dollars of camera equipment, my mother had taken 32 pictures with a SureShot. Mike took the film in for processing. The last frame was a view of the smoke-stack on Mission Hospital as seen from the garage. Ironically, the first frames were taken in Richmond, Virginia, of the hospital in which she was born. Her family moved to New York when she was six, and she couldn’t remember any of it. She’d written about visiting the area of her early childhood. She got the chance on this trip.

My mother was a “constant” in a world of “variables”. I miss her, but I don’t feel bad about the means of her passing. She really did lead an incredibly full life and she had truly enjoyed all of it, including this last trip.

If my mother were here right now, she’d be kicking me for telling such a depressing story.   She would have wanted a party – an event where we could tell stories honoring her life, not a grim and somber episode of mourning, which, as Webster’s says, is “an act or instance of feeling or expressing sorrow”. So, I’ll lighten up. While I miss her wisdom, and I’m sorry that she’s not with us, I appreciate all that I learned from her example.

Here are stories and examples from that life of selflessness, persistence, confidence, trust, patience and love.

She was not selfish – Ignoring her continual downward readjustments of the thermostat, she was completely selfless. For over fifty years, she had some form of involvement, at ridiculously low pay, with Scouting- from camp counselor to camp president, and from den mother to regional field executive. And, now that I’m a parent, I can appreciate how her giving nature allowed me to survive infancy. No one with a grain of selfishness could have remained sane while their first-born screamed and cried for nine months with an undiagnosed ear infection. Thanks, Mom – and Dad, for not drowning me…

She was persistent. She fought City Hall and won, both in Houston and New York. There’s a life-saving traffic light at a dangerous intersection outside of our subdivision in New York that was installed because of her persistence. And she was one of the founders of a movement here in Houston, that succeeded in getting a cap on property-taxes.

She was confident. Confident that she could do anything that she set her mind to. And confident that those around her could do the same. It rubbed off. Confident enough in me, at age five, to push me, on my bike without training wheels, down the hill on which we lived. Confident that I would remain upright through my own ability. Confident that I would put on the brakes before running out of sidewalk. Persistent in her story that she did indeed tell me how to stop, before pushing me. (Wrong!) I have a persistent memory of her running after me, trying to keep up, shouting something about brakes…

She was trusting. Trusting enough to let two rebellious sons grow out of their teenage turmoil and strangeness with a minimum of interference. Trusting enough to let each of us hitch-hike and motorcycle to New York and back with no more advice than “have fun” and “be careful”. We rewarded her trust by somehow, miraculously, surviving those and other journeys to become well-adjusted, rebellious and strange adults.

She was patient. Patient enough to endure the mind-boggling clutter of a family of pack-rats.   And patient enough to tolerate the continual upward readjustments of the thermostat…

She was loving. Love was the foundation for all of her other virtues.

I can think of no better image of her love of life and the people around her than my memory of an Oreo rolling event.   A group of the usual gang of friends was staying at one particular friend’s palatial summer retreat: Kensington, in northwest Georgia. My parents were always welcome within the usual gang of friends, without regard for the so-called “generation gap”, and they were staying at Kensington with the rest of us.

There was a series of competitions to determine who would be the best man at an upcoming wedding: what was called a “best man rally”. One of the contests was Oreo-rolling. The idea was to roll an Oreo down a road for both distance and accuracy, from a set starting-line. You reach the starting-line while riding in a Volkswagen panel van traveling 45 miles per hour.   Scoring was to involve the total distance travelled by the Oreo, minus its distance from the center stripe on the two-lane country road. The members of the gang who were not competing, including my mother, were recruited to track and measure the Oreo’s roll. As the pilot of the Bozobus, I was responsible for reaching the proper speed by the starting-line, shouting out a countdown to release as we approached the starting-line, and responsible for the safety of all involved. I would hear “oohs”, “ahhs” and “damns!” depending upon the quality of the “roll”, but I got to see precious little of the actual Oreo in motion. But the winning Oreo was special in many ways.   In my rearview mirror I could see not only a tiny black dot careening along behind us, but my then-60-year-old mother running as fast as she could, down a country road, keeping up with friends half her age, chasing a rolling cookie.

That’s the kind of thing she’d want us to remember.