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What Happened, How he Died

Thank you for all your notes and calls, my friends.

Each time I receive an email or Facebook wall posting, my iPhone dings and I check. I cannot write back right now, but each message is an infusion of love and support. You are keeping me going.

New grief is an odd thing, I'm learning. Sometimes I have an hour or so where its vise grip relents and I feel almost normal. It's the middle of the night, and I feel able to fill you all in on a few more details of what happened so tragically last week, when my husband Bill suddenly -- and completely unexpectedly -- died.

Bill, as many of you know, had been advising the President of Madagascar on Leadership and Communication.  His plan was to spend 8 months a year there for the next two years, while concurrently teaching at UC Berkeley.  He spent two and a half months there last Spring, and left for a six-month stint in mid-October. He rented a house on the outskirts of Antananarivo, and began working round the clock doing work he loved, training people on all levels, from the grassroots up to the highest levels of government. He traveled extensively around the island. He fell in love with Madagascar, the place and the people. He made strong bonds with the ex-pat community as well as with the Malagasy he worked with. He earned the love and respect of his staff. He worked hard. He missed us terribly. He believed he was doing the most important work of his life.

Annie and I joined him December 19 for what was planned to be a two week holiday. We spent three days in Andasibe National Park. At Vakona Lodge, lemurs danced on our heads. In the forest, we saw two families of "Babakutu," Indri lemurs, the largest lemurs in the world. We created poker chips from torn up bits of paper and had wild family games. Back in Antananarivo, we got to know his driver, Rakoto, and his assistant, Rotsy. We went to a party at his friend Lisa Gaylord's house. We braved three-hour traffic jams in twisting streets and celebrated Christmas with the decorated Sisal tree his armed guards gave him. Annie was sick on Christmas -- traveler's belly and gastritis -- I had a bit of it too, but we decided to press on.

On December 26 we flew to Maraontsetra, a town high up on the east coast of the island.  We were met by Chris Golden, a UC Berkeley grad student doing his fieldwork in the forests there. Chris walked us through the dirt road town lined with one-room commerce and people calling out to him. He fed us in his home, and took us to a local party. The lights in the town went out and we walked back to our hotel in the dark, the unfamiliar constellations of the Southern Hemisphere lighting our way.

The next morning we were met at the mouth of the river by our guide from Masoala Forest Lodge. An hour trip in a Zodiac under clear skies through the bay to a remote spot far along the peninsula.

Here, in Masoala, we found the place Bill and I been looking for our entire traveling lives together. A rain forest that came down to the sea. Warm water teeming with colorful fish. On this peninsula, 1% of the entire planet's biodiversity. We snorkled, we took a dugout canoe up a river. We ate communally in the eco-lodge. We hiked in the night and saw the rare Fantail Gecko and, peering from the woods, the rare Fossa Fossana.

The next day we hiked deep into the rain forest. It was hot and oppressive -- Annie and I wilted but Bill was grinning. Elated. In his element. Our guide went in search of lemurs while we sat and rested. While he was gone, the lemurs came to us! A family of White-Faced Brown lemurs, one with a baby on her back, eating fruit in the tree above us. And scolding them and fighting for his territory, a Red Ruft lemur, living nowhere else on the planet, on the critically endangered list.

On our way back to the lodge, we were completely drenched in warm delicious rain. That afternoon, Bill and Annie went sea kayaking into the sunset.  As they arrived back on the beach, I was waiting on the rocks. Behind them, a vivid rainbow shafted down into the rainforest.

You can't make this stuff up.

That night at around 9 p.m. Bill suddenly felt ill. My illness came back too, and we traded off the bathroom with increasing urgency -- it was a hard night, both of us sick -- one bathroom.  At around 4 a.m., I got better, and finally got an hour or so of sleep. At 5, he was much worse, groaning and frightened, and I realized his abdomen was swelling up like a ball. At 6:30 a.m. I touched his swollen belly and instantly realized something was terribly wrong. This was no simple gastritis like Annie had had the week before. I ran to get help.

The lodge rallied, and by 7:00 a.m. they had packed and secured everything in the Zodiac and we were on the water, evacuating back to Maraontsetra. Five of us -- including the lodge manager Sean and Grading, a guest -- held Bill down as the boat slammed across the bay -- the driver trying to minimize the impact. The water was choppy and it was raining hard. We covered Bill as much as we could with our raincoats. Bill was in pain but conscious. Annie was right by his face, holding him, and he knew she was there. I looked at Annie and saw the woman in her --no fear, just compassion, strength, love, worry. I held Bill's legs, squatted on the bottom of the boat, and tried to keep from flying overboard. The ride took an hour.

At the dock, we were met by Chris Golden who took us in a taxi first to a doctor's house where they put Bill on a straw mat on the dirty porch to take his vitals and get a prescription -- that's how they do it there. Then they put us all in the back of a slow-driving flat bed truck and we traveled a few minutes down dirt roads to the "hospital," barely a clinic. We arrived at 8:15.  By this time, Bill was pretty unaware. He knew we were there, though, holding him, talking to him.

At the hospital they found a stretcher and brought him into a room lined with rusted steel bed frames. Somebody found an old foam mattress, somebody else found a dirty table cloth to place on it, we got him on the bed. A nurse started trying to start an IV and a tech tried to place an enema to relieve some of the pressure in his abdomen. The nurse got the IV drip in but the tech was unsuccessful. I realized Bill was turning blue and was unresponsive, no breathing, no heartbeat -- Grading and I began CPR, the nurse found a mask from the 1940s and began trying to pump air into his lungs, somebody administered a shot of adrenaline directly to his heart, but he was gone.  We'd been at the hospital maybe 20 minutes.  We continued to try to resuscitate him. After a while, the doctor arrived with a stethoscope and shook his head gently.

Less than 12 hours after he first felt sick, Bill was dead.

It was impossible.


They dressed him in his traveling clothes -- blue jeans and a blue silk shirt that matched his eyes. Annie and I hugged him and kissed him goodbye, and I took his wedding ring off his finger and put it on my own. Then they wrapped him in a traditional white shroud.


What had happened? What had he died of?

They didn't do an autopsy. I refused it. I had no faith in their medical system by this point. I couldn't let them cut into his body.

But based on his symptoms, after consulting with a number of doctors, from what I understand it was one of two things (and maybe both).  It likely was Toxic Mega-colon. Bill was on a lot of opiate pain killers for his neck pain, plus he'd had a similar (much less severe) episode in early November -- these are both indications. An infection in the colon could have built up to cause sudden and massive toxemia -- the symptoms match.

Or he might have had an aneurism or stricture somewhere in his digestive system due to the violence of the illness. Or the toxemia from the colon infection (Toxic Mega-Colon) could have caused an aneurism. Or the reverse.  It's clear though, that even had he arrived at a state-of-the-art medical ER instead of a rural clinic with few resources, he likely would not have made it.  


The next 36 hours were a stunned blur. A presidential plane was sent to bring us back to Antananarivo, a flurry of inquests and paperwork, answering the same questions again and again.  Most of which we were shielded from by the beautiful ex-pat community of Bill's friends who took Annie and I in, ran all our errands for us, and nurtured us through our terrible shock. Lisa Gaylord and her family took us in. The US Embassy came to the house so I wouldn't have to leave. Winifred Atkinson and Rotsy helped us pack up Bill's house. Peter Hofs made sure Bill's body would be able to come home with us. The people of Madagascar Bill worked with are devastated, and determined to continue the work Bill began. The Presidency held a memorial service for Bill at the house, and then, escorted by Joelisoa Ratsirarson, the President's Chief of Staff and Bill's close friend, we flew home with Bill's body, a 45-hour journey.

We were met in Paris by the French Ambassador and his staff, and again in San Francisco by the US Ambassador who flew in to greet us. At every airport Annie and I were treated with full diplomatic protocol, handed softly across the world by respectful and grieving hands. Once home, Armed Homeland Security guards expedited our passage through customs. It was grim way to experience celebrity.

This is only a small inkling of the effect Bill had on the world.

Never mind his effect on us, his family and friends.


Thank you to the beautiful people of Madagascar. Thank you to Haas and the ELP. Thank you to the people of our community who have sent food and flowers and cards and washed the floor and done our laundry and wept with us. Annie and I and the rest of the family are trying to make sense of this, hanging on tightly.


One last thing. We were together 22 years, and I knew Bill well, perhaps the best of anybody.  And I can tell you this:

Though his end was sudden and abrupt and far, far, too soon, it was absolutely the way he wanted to go. We'd talked about it many times. No lingering. A final day hiking in the rainforest in the most remote place on the planet. Lemurs dancing in the trees above. Snorkling in clear warm waters. Doused by clear warm rain. Kayaking in the sea at sunset, a vivid rainbow shafting down into the forest hillside. Sleeping in a tent bungalow surrounded by the sounds of nature. Being with his family. A quick illness, and then out -- never having to grow old, to diminish, to stop adventuring, to be confined, to be disappointed.

To leave a legacy.

And to have a big, international, dramatic fuss about it all.


48 Comment count
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Thank you, ericka, for

Thank you, ericka, for posting this.  I've wanted this story and have been unable to ask the questions.  I love knowing about the day before Bill died, what he was able to see and do and experience.  I'm glad to know you saw him in that day, that amazing day.


Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

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oh Ericka

How can something be so stunningly beautiful and tragic all at once? Your description of that gorgeous place really is amazing. Like Jessica, I am so so glad you got to share that beauty together, and the beauty of your relationship and family. 

I am so sorry for the pain you all had to experience and will experience with in the coming days, weeks, years. I hope that the vise grip relents for longer and longer periods. You know that I and so many others are here to give comfort in whatever form you might need  or want.

Sending much love,



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There are no words, but I feel like I have to find them from somewhere, especially after you have found them here. Just to let you know I'm one of the many who have cried for you. You are held in the thoughts of so many each day.

With love, m

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With sorrow

Oh, Ericka. . . Thank you for this, for sharing Bill with us yet again, for opening up your lives to us with your beautiful writing. I'm sending you love and strength as you and Annie move through these hard days.

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There is hardly ever a way

There is hardly ever a way to make sense of such an abrupt end, but I do believe you when you say it was the way Bill would have wanted to go.  I'm sorry, so sorry.

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Oh, Ericka, I can only echo

Oh, Ericka, I can only echo what others have said.  Thank you for sharing this most precious and most terrible of stories with us; thank you for inviting us in to your marriage.  I'm so sorry you had to go through this, and so glad you are able to keep with you the certainty that this was, indeed, the right way for Bill to go, though it was also so clearly the wrong time. 

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Oh, Ericka

I'm glad his last day was so perfect, and I wish you and Annie all the love and support to get through this difficult time.

This was a beautiful tribute.

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Your tribute

Erica, thank you for introducing me to this lovely man, and for sharing the beauty of his last days with you.  Yes, you were blessed to have him in your life...and he was blessed to have you in his.

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touching his heart

Dear Erika

what a striking and beautiful story--not only of Bill's death but also of his life. I am moved by the environment internal and external. When you were administering CPR, you were close to his heart, his breath, and his body. That is complete in a way.

 You are gracious in your grief. We are lucky that you think of your friends and acquaintainces enough to deliver this important story.

 In my culture, we put hard candy on our tongue to suck on the sweet memories of our loved ones.

i didn't know bill but i'll pop a root beer barrel in his memory and for you sweetness,


And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love, you make (paul mc cartney) Elmaz elmaz@elmazabinader.com

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With Sorrow...

Ericka, thank you for posting this. My heart aches for you and Annie. I wondered what had happened.  It is hardest for those left behind. May your memories help to console you and give you strength.

Sending warm hugs.

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Bill's Life

Thank you for your generosity of spirit in sharing this so freely with us, Ericka. You and Annie can comfort yourselves that at least you were there for Bill. In the future, that will matter even more than it does now.

My thoughts and prayers are with you both. The shadows of grief might do their worst, but I feel sure the light will never go out.



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Oh Ericka, heartbreaking but beautiful, too. I lost my father at 14 to a heartattack and can still remember the impossiblility of it. But like you I consoled myself with the fact that he would never grow old and be diminished.

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Requiescat in pace

What a terrible yet beautiful death.

As you describe, the circumstances are what Bill would have desired. It is an act of wonder that you and your daughter managed to be with him.

Ericka, I hope that when time attempts to heal this aching wound, these memories of your last days together will ease the pain.

 - Dale Estey

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Tears and hugs

Thank you, Ericka, for your remarkable generosity in sharing your family's story. I can only imagine how painful it was to write such a moving and beautiful tribute ... I can only hope the act of sharing will also help you heal. Blessings to you and Annie ... Marjorie

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Dear Ericka

With deep appreciation to you for writing this.  It is truly a miracle, that you were all together. 

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Dear Ericka

Dear Ericka,

Gina and myself never imagined that the first time either of us would post to you would ever be under such heartbreaking circumstances. Words fail us. We want to express how deeply sorry we are for you and your daughter's loss.  We hope you will not mind complete strangers expressing these deeply sad feelings for you both.

Wishing you both the very best.

Ryoma and Gina

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Thank you Ericka

This is beautiful, heartbreaking, powerful.  I am thinking of you.

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It all sounds like the

It all sounds like the script of an enthralling movie, Ericka, and I wish so much that it were.

While I can't imagine the pain you and Annie are going through, I am comforted by the knowledge that a woman who could write this so beautifully while still in shock that it has even happened, is a woman strong enough to prevail... and thrive again, in time.


Shana McLean Moore www.caffeinatedponderings.com www.sunnysidecommunications.com

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I'm So Sorry, Ericka and Annie

Thank you for sharing this oddly beautiful tragedy with us. . .and at a time when it is still so fresh.  These black irises are for you.  Stay strong.  Just continue to do your best.  I will put you in my prayers.

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Thank You

Thank you for posting these beautiful words, and sharing your grief with us. I'm thinking of you and Annie. She's so lucky to have you as a mom, and so lucky to have had such a wonderful father. You are taking such amazing care of her. I hope we can help do the same for you. 


Love, Rebecca 

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I'm so sorry

My deepest sympathies, Ericka. The contrast you described between here and gone, between alive and alive no longer, is just beyond comprehension.

I'm so very sorry for your incomprehensible loss.

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this is lovely

You honor Bill so beautifully with this poignant tribute, Ericka. Thank you for bringing Bill's life into the Red Room in this very touching way. I can hardly stop thinking about you and Annie. 

Thankfully, you have the support of this and other communities. We're not enough, but we're here with you anyway.  

Katie Burke

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Deepest condolences

Dearest Ericka,

 What an magnificent person Bill must have been. What wonderful work he was doing. And, as you say, an extraordinary legacy.

I am so deeply sorry for your loss. You conveyed him so beautifully here, I feel as if I was there in the forest with you, close to Bill and you and your daughter. My father would say this is an 'ussma-- something in the design of the universe.

Yes, hang on, hang on. I send you loving thoughts and prayers.


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Thank You

Ericka, your account of Bill's last days is breathtaking. We should all be so lucky to have even one magical day like Bill experienced with you and Annie in December. How much more astounding that this is how he chose to spend his whole life: having adventures, experiencing and appreciating beauty, making a difference in people's lives. His life and your account of it are powerful reminders of how important it is to know what matters most to us and to live the way we've always wanted to live (and not just talk about doing so). I will never, ever forget the story of Bill's life. I'm so grateful to you for being vulnerable and sharing it with us. You, too, inspire me more than words can ever express. All love to you and Annie.

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Tears in my eyes

Oh, Ericka. I'm sitting here in my office with tears in my eyes, but as I finished your beautiful essay, goosebumps went up and down my arms. I am still so devastated for you, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing such a beautiful, sad story.



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bless you

People above me have already said what I feel - profoundly sorry for your loss, grateful for your magical adventure before his death, and admiration for your ability to share the story of it all. Bless you and Annie.

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Tears and admiration

.. for all of you. The grace that enables you to write like that, when grief is busy carving new spaces in your soul. Love pouring toward you from everywhere can never be enough, but it's what's here.

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Oh, I wish my heart could hold your heart at a time like this. Thank you for being brave enough to tell this story so soon. Thank you for using words to express yourself. I wish, wish, wish, so much.

Please feel yet more love surrounding you.


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Thank you, Ericka

As Katie said, I really appreciate you bringing your experience to Red Room. I keep thinking about how Bill really did on his last day what we're all supposed to do—live every day as if it were our last.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Thank you.

All your comments have me reeling again, but with love.  Here is an obit of Bill -- http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2009/01/07_sonnenschein.shtml

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Ericka, I'm So Sorry

First, for not knowing; and

secondly, that you are going through this pain and loss.



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How to make it about you. . .?

Ericka,  I've thought about you more regularly since you wrote about Bill going to Madagascar, and being torn between what made Bill soar and being with him, and I was grateful I haven't thus far had to make that choice.  And then I saw you at my show just before you left to see him, Annie looked so beautiful and so grown from when I saw her before.  Then I saw something on FB about ppl bringing food to your house for your homecoming and thought, wow, after a hellishly long flight, the last thing I'd want is a house full of ppl.  I didn't find out what happened until a week later.  And I can't stop thinking about it since - because I always try to be mindful of what is best for the person, not for me and my response to what has happened, which has a life of its own.  Email or card, how public, how private, now or later when most have given their support?  I blogged about it, emailed ppl and I felt and what I sensed was that best to honor him and this passage for me to wait awhile, until I knew a distance had passed and I could be there for you and not burden you with my own racing thoughts and questions about it.  And even tho I was uncertain at first, my first instinct was to get you a spa certificate in a few weeks, to set aside some time for your physical body as part of your healing.  It is the most of myself I could think of to give.  But oh dear how I try to wrap my mind around what you are going through.  But still your beautiful soul is able to write so beautifully about it, I was afraid you wouldn't be able to, and you seem to be on the path to making peace with it.  I'll be in touch soon, as it's my style to hang back while everything swirls around, but rest assured I will be here after that period passes, and I thank you so much for your generosity and I wish your beautiful soul and that of your beautiful daughter a safe passage through a very difficult time.  And if you have a favorite spa out there, lemme know, as i only know ones here in the city.

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What a lovely tribute to

What a lovely tribute to Bill, who was clearly a lovely man. I'm so very sorry for what you and Annie are going through, Ericka. My heart goes out to you.


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Dear Ericka,   I have been

Dear Ericka,  

I have been absent from Red Room for the last month and was so shocked and saddened to come back to  such a wrenching and moving story.   My deepest condolences to you and your daughter on the loss of Bill, who sounds like such a wonderful man.

 It brought back memories of the death of my father, nearly 20 years ago.  He died--in a modern American hospital--of a sudden and devastating illness, never diagnosed.   There is a particular pain,  I think, in not knowing, and in realizing that sometimes nothing can be done, even under the best of conditions.

Take comfort in your memories, especially your magical last days together.  Thank you for sharing them with us.

Blair Kilpatrick 

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Your moving tribute


Thank you for writing this beautiful piece. This line made me tear up:

"I looked at Annie and saw the woman in her --no fear, just compassion, strength, love, worry."

Best wishes during this difficult time.


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Dear Ericka

Although I don't know you very well - I shared one Berkeley summer session with you two years ago-, I wanted to let you know how sorry I feel after what happened and offer my condolences.

I only knew Bill from his books and from what you wrote about him but the picture that I have in my mind was a man who loved and fully enjoyed every life opportunity, every beauty of the nature; and this is marvelous.

I guess after such a loss it is easy to feel frightfully alone, and, if it could just soothe your pain, I want you to know that so many people care about you, myself included.

My thoughts are with you and your family.

Aurélie Zordan

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Deepest condolences, Ericka,

for the terrible shock of losing Bill.  In the midst of pain,  what a gift you have given your husband, your family, and (so generously) your friends/readers by bringing his last days to life so beautifully. Preserving them, in your inimitable way that makes our hearts ache with grief and gratitude that you and Annie had the time together and were with him when he died.   Thank-you for sharing, and know that our warmest thoughts and sympathies are with you and your family.   With love, Lori

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You both have touched so many people

Just seeing all the posts, I'm struck by how many people are holding you close to them right now. Thank you for a beautiful account of a lovely man. It's a little reminder to all of us how much life expects of us. All my sympathy on a tragic loss.


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My heart accompanies you as do the hearts of so many others, both in the swirl (as Enzo puts it) of your unbelievable loss, as well as in the stillness.

You've written, with such unwavering humanity, of your final days with Bill, and I feel so honored to have read your words. Thank you for opening those days up to us, for rendering them and each of you with such fierce love.

May all necessary resources come to you and to Annie as you need them. May you both find your way through with ample love and support. Bobby and I are here to offer whatever would be helpful, in anyway we can.

With you,

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All hail the Chairman of the Board


Thank you for sharing in this way - so brave and beautiful - in this time.

Thank you. I knew Bill briefly. Liked him immensely. He is one with great humanity.

I can say this - while the spectacular energies of life do change, they do not seem to ever go away - their influence, one felt, endures...

Death's opposite is not Life, but Birth - and this, we celebrate! We are alive, a life, and what precedes and what follows is unknown...

Know that there is balance in this world.

Know you are not alone.


-James Ellis, CFO, Balls without Borders

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With sympathy...

Erika--What a beautiful tribute you wrote to share with your husband's friends.   You have blessed many people with your writing about this prescious time with him--even those of us who did not know you. I pray that the writing of it  has helped you as you processed this terrible event.  I am glad you were there with him. 

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My heart goes out to you. Being a writer does not mean having words for moments like this -- but though I don't, amazingly, you do. Thank you for making the time and space for this sharing. I hope you feel all the warm energy pouring back in your direction. May you find strength and peace, abundantly. Evie

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Ericka, I just wanted to let you know...

how sorry I was about Bill. I feel like I knew him through your blog. Please take care of yourself and Annie and I'll think good thoughts for both of you.

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Gigantic heart

Ericka, I often forget that life, even at its most beautiful, is fragile. Thank you for writing about the beauty and ultimate fragility of Bill. You gave us all the gift of your wisdom. Veronica

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A testament to strength

I can't imagine writing such a clear and eloquent eulogy in the wake of a great loss...the fact that you did is a testament not only to your own strength, but to the spirit of the man you honor. Your words have made us all a little richer.

Praying for you and your family,

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Dancing Lemurs

Dear Erika,

This was such a wonderful way to paint the end of someone's life. Both horrific and beautiful. There isn't ever enough time, and death always comes too soon, but I hope I get to see those dancing lemurs before I go.

My best wishes.

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Sending you lots of love

Dear Ericka,

My heart goes out to you and Annie--thank you for sharing this, it's beautiful to see how your husband lived. Please let me know if there is anything you need--your posts are an important reminder to me to live and love well.


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A Touching Rememberance

My condolences.

And thank you for your words, which remind me what a gift each moment is.