This is Toni Randolph's desk in the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom. It is filled with notes, files and the other detritus accumulated by a news editor. It looks as if Toni will come back at any time, settling in behind the keyboard to edit newscasts and reporter's stories, especially the stories of the fledgling reporters she loved to work with. Toni was a valued mentor and a champion of including more ethnically diverse voices in our stories and in the newsroom.
Toni won't do any of that anymore. The calla lilies and pot of red flowers are a small, sad memorial to her.
Toni Randolph died July 3, 2016 after living, and living quietly and gracefully, with cancer. She died while undergoing a medical procedure that was part of her battle with the disease.
Her colleagues. myself included, are shocked.
Toni was an intensely private person in a very public business. In a society that uses social media to share and show off, she clearly chose to keep her mounting health issues hidden. Very few knew her struggle. Toni kept coming to work, dressed to the nines, with a smile on her face, in spite of growing physical pain caused by the cancer she had quietly fought for more than three years. Three years of grueling treatments. Even friends who say they were close to Toni didn't know she was undergoing chemotherapy.
“People will automatically go into grief mode and she did not want that,”
Some of my colleagues wonder how they could have worked side by side with Toni and not have known she was in a fight for her life. It turns out, her decision to keep her condition secret may be more common than we think.
David Bowie really didn't let on he was dying until he, well, died.
Author Jackie Collins kept her cancer under wraps while she wrote several books and kept up an exhausting book tour schedule.
The brother of British comedian, Victoria Wood, says she was "determined" not to let her fatal illness become public, even to close friends and family.
So why would someone want to keep their terminal diagnosis, any health struggle, a secret?
Grief therapists say it's a complicated question with a variety of potential answers.
Dr. Karen Weihs, the director of the psycho-social oncology program with Banner University Medical Center in Tucson, says some patients don't want to burden others with their plight.
"It frightens them, she told KGUN-TV, "and they feel like they have had a big change in themselves and they don't want other people to feel the same way they do. Sometimes its just because they are so emotionally distressed by it and imagine [family] will be equally as distressed and their trying to protect their family members from that distress."
Other people, she says, fear abandonment or don't feel they have the kind of people in their lives who are willing and able to be supportive. Some people, who are living with disease, also don't want the disease to become their identity. I understand that and I understand what other grief counselors say about the need for control. For many people navigating cancer, with whom and what they share is the one thing they CAN control as everything else spirals out of control. As a recovering control freak, that has a ring of familiarity for me.
My beloved and departed friend, Bruce Kramer, kept his ALS diagnosis quiet for a time in an attempt to control what he thought would be a difficult situation. He felt there were "sharks" at his former place of employment who, Bruce thought, would "smell blood" and leave him even more debilitated, on a professional level, than he was to become with the disease itself. Bruce also discovered the need to create what he coined "The Tell" when he decided what to say to people when they saw him limping and using a cane. While initially exhausting to shoulder the emotions of people after hearing about his ALS diagnosis, Bruce found beauty and healing in sharing his dis-ease and learning about the inevitable dis-ease of others.
This morning, as I stood in front of Toni Randolph's desk, I noticed a small turtle, carved from a piece of pipestone, just above her computer keyboard.
The pipestone is sacred to Native Americans and the turtle spirit symbolic of health and longevity. It's hard shell signifying protection and perseverance. Ultimately Toni wasn't blessed with longevity nor protected from the ravages of cancer, but she leaves behind a bright legacy, certainly in the body of work she created, but most importantly in the people she helped nurture and mentor.
I hope you'll read this poignant obituary, a last look at a gentle spirit: www.mprnews.org/story/2016/07/04/toni
The Blog Authors
Bruce started writing about living with ALS shortly after being diagnosed in 2010. The blog is called the "Dis Ease Diary."
Cathy is a journalist so she's used to writing. Blogging is different because it feels so personal and that can be scary. Bear with her. She'll figure it out!
You may hear from Ev from time to time. Ev is Bruce's beloved wife. She's a music teacher at a French immersion school.