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TEAMMATE TEACHES US ALL HOW TO LIVE WITH GUSTO

At 79, she was the oldest member of the team, though she had a mischievous adventurism about her that belied her chronological age. (Her Irish genes, she'd say.)

When she was 75, she answered a two-line ad in The Buffalo News: "Looking for breast cancer survivors to participate in a free weight-training program and to paddle dragon boats."

She and about a dozen others answered the ad, placed by a team whose members were all breast cancer survivors. She and the others had to take part in the weight-lifting program because research suggested the value of post-operative exercise. And once you were modestly fit and nimble, you could race dragon boats -- 45-foot canoes -- with other breast cancer teams just for the sheer fun of it.

Dragon boats are rapidly catching on as a challenging team sport. They require 20 paddlers, a steers-woman with a 14-foot oar at the stern, and in the bow, instead of a coxswain, a drummer beating out the stroke rhythm on a waist-high Chinese drum. But all of that was still in the future when Thelma signed up.

Thelma was neither fit nor nimble at first, but starting with 2-pound weights she ultimately passed the "can-do" test. When I joined the team in 2001, she was already legendary, with her wry sense of humor and her sheer grit. She even outperformed many of us after the races, cruising the delights of the Dragon Boat Festival after many of us had turned in.

Thelma had earned the right to be happy. Trained as a nurse, she worked most of her adult life in the VA hospital. Her much-loved adopted daughter died five years ago. Her husband died three years ago. Thelma's own cancer had returned at least once.

Because she was a private person, most of us didn't know she was on chemo for metastasizing cancer last fall. She had actually postponed the first treatment until the race season was over. We saw her less and less at workout sessions.

We heard she had been taken to Sisters Hospital. Her doctors decided to send her home under hospice care. Her reaction: "I hope I flunk hospice." Soon she was back in the hospital, though ever alert and loving the company of visitors.

Having served others for a lifetime, she was surprised and sustained by the love of her teammates. She had but one wish: to ride in the dragon boat one more time.

With the creative collaboration of a physician, a physical therapist and her son, she left the hospital briefly, was helped into the dragon boat -- oxygen tank tethered at her side -- and went for a 15-minute spin under the watchful eyes of her medical team. When they returned to the dock, she announced, "I could die right now and be happy."

It was a joyful announcement for her. And I suspect it also was a message to us: that we could now joyfully let her go. Within two weeks, Thelma slipped peacefully away, a team member at her side and her son not far behind.

She was our village elder, with much to teach us. About priorities. About gratitude. About facing fears. About living with zest. And about dying with grace.

The name of the dragon boat team, by the way, is Hope Chest. Thelma's life is one of the many treasures it contains.

ELIZABETH B. CONANT enjoys racing dragon boats.

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