Tuesday, April 20, 1999

Unquenchable laughter of Lynn Stern

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Lynn Stern
        The news was not unexpected. Lynn Stern had been gravely ill for several months. In fact, a few weeks ago, there was a false alarm. The poor soul from the Enquirer who called to get information for the death notice was told the deceased was sitting up in bed, eating toast.

        I can just hear Lynn's hoot of laughter. I'll bet she loved the idea that she'd screwed her old enemy, cancer, out of a few more days.

        When I close my eyes, I can hear her laughter. I believe — I hope — that I will always hear it. Lynn's laugh started at her toes and made the short trip upward with remarkable speed and velocity.


        And she would say, necessary.

No initiation fee
        “I don't know what laughter can do, really, medically,” Lynn told me once. “It might be good for my immune system. Anyway it sure makes me feel good.” So she laughed every chance she had, making the rest of us feel far more entertaining than we probably deserved.

        We. Us. A blessed but not very select group. There was, for instance, no initiation fee.

        Lynn co-founded the Wellness Community, a free support program for cancer survivors. That was in 1987, when she was recovering from ovarian cancer. Since then, more than 10,000 people have been served. I may be kidding myself — I probably am — but I think Lynn knew every one.

        Anyway, we all knew her. We really did. “She was,” Ned Stern, her husband of 31 years, said, “exactly who she seemed to be.” No pretense.

        Sunday night, about 11:30, with enormous dignity and remarkable calm, Lynn Stern left us. And Monday morning, telephones all over the city started ringing. We needed to talk. That was one of the things we learned from Lynn. One of them.

        Linnea Lose, a public relations specialist and breast cancer survivor, said, “Because of Lynn and the Wellness Community, I made much wiser decisions about medical options. I learned I could defy the odds.”

        Lynn always said carefully that the Wellness Community's support groups, stress management advice, tai chi lessons, yoga and nutritional classes were “in addition to traditional medicine.”

        Non-traditional remedies included such things as Jokefest, when the Wellness Community's suite in Kenwood rocked with bawdy jokes. Perhaps being scared out of your wits lets you face life with, shall we say, a certain abandon.

        “It could get a little raunchy,” co-founder of the Wellness Community Sherry Weathers said unapologetically. Spirits were served on special occasions in this place of healing, also unapologetically.

Mimi's scrapbooks
        Everyone knew that there is something out there more dangerous than a glass of chardonnay. More obscene than a dirty joke. Something that will kill you quicker than cancer.

        It is despair.

        “We don't have any cures here,” Lynn said of her project. “This place is about the quality of life, about making sure each day is as good as it can be.”

        She tried to give us all fair warning and comfort in advance. “I know that I got a lot more time with her than I was ever meant to have,” her daughter, Kate Gonzalez, said. “And I know that she fought for that time.”

        Then she told me that Lynn made scrapbooks for her grandchildren from their “Mimi,” filled with letters and photos. I gave a noisy and thoroughly unprofessional sniffle.

        I apologized.

        “I don't mind,” she said. Then she said something to make me laugh. She is, after all, her mother's daughter.

        Lynn Stern was a woman who could make you laugh but would let you cry. And she had the grace and wit to know that one is as important — and as healing — as the other.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

Stern obituary