Author's note: A year and a half ago my friend Rene asked if I would write her obituary. I did not know Rene as well then. She knew me better because she read my books and blog. She lived in Juneau, but her family has a cabin in Haines, where I live. We became friends only after I knew Rene wouldn’t live long. I write a lot of obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines. I believe reading them ought to teach you something about life. Rene’s, which I wrote for Sunday’s Juneau Empire, does -- and that is why I’m sharing it with you. She never read it. I figured it was bad luck to complete an obituary ahead of schedule.
Teacher Rene Pisel Walker, 49, died April 1 at home in North Douglas of metastatic breast cancer that was first diagnosed in 2005. Rene had been in hospice about two weeks and, typically, had left instructions for her obituary writer:
“First, I really don’t want you to list the people who survive me. I don’t like that term, and I don’t like to limit them, there are so many more than my immediate family.”
(That family includes husband David and children Eliza and Dawson Walker, siblings Elizabeth Davis and Scott Pisel, mother Jan and Bob Van Slyke, and father Gary and Barbara Pisel.)
“I also don’t want you to say ‘lost her battle with cancer’ or ‘after a long struggle with cancer.’ I live with cancer. It is what it is. It is my life, not some kind of war with myself.”
Above all, she wanted you to know this: “My biggest joy was being a parent to such wonderful kids. Dawson and Eliza make me proud every moment. I’m so pleased they’ll go off into the world with their amazing talents and caring personalities. And Davey. Being married to such a kind, patient, loving man has made this all worthwhile.”
Rene wanted to change the world for the better, and friends agree that she did. She loved teaching kindergarten and first grade students at Gastineau Elementary School. A year ago, when she knew the end was approaching, she did not make a bucket list. She said, “What is it I really want to do? I want an ordinary life with my family and to teach school.”
What she didn’t say, but her loved ones will tell you, is how beautiful, kind, funny, and frank she was. She lived the way her favorite poet Mary Oliver advised, making sure her life was “particular” and that she was not “simply a visitor” in this world.
She inspired husband David Walker’s Wearable Art winner, The Beast in the Beauty, and was his biggest fan, but chose to keep her cancer private.
“It was important to her that people look beyond her disease and see her for the person she was -- loving teacher, mother of talented children, loved wife, most excellent friend, a person who tried to live her life with honesty and integrity and as full of love as it could be,” friend Debra Bufton said. “Rene walked into her life and her illness with her eyes wide open. She demanded love, respect, and engagement from everyone, even her many medical practitioners, and was more than willing to extend it right back.”
“But don’t say I never complained,” Rene told her obituary writer. “I hate that. What’s with that? I complain all the time. Cancer is so unfair.”
Rene Marie Pisel Walker was born July 15, 1963 in Fort Dix, N.J., to Gary Pisel and Jan Schwank. Her father was in the Air Force and later became a commercial pilot. She was raised in New Jersey, Minneapolis, and the Seattle area. When her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Missoula, graduating from Hellgate High in 1981. She earned a BA in political science at Lewis and Clarke College. In 1985 she moved to Haines, where she helped run the old 10-Mile Roadhouse. In 1987 she left Haines for a job with Planned Parenthood in Portland. A friend from Haines, carpenter David Walker, came to Portland for a visit and stayed a month. They were married July 14, 1990 at Rainbow Glacier Camp in Haines and settled in Juneau, where Rene spent 13 years as an education specialist and client advocate for AWARE. When their children were in second grade and pre-school the Walkers spent six months camping in Australia.
Upon returning to Juneau, Rene earned her teaching credential. She began teaching at Gastineau Elementary School in 2003 and pursued a master’s degree at UAS. Of her careers, Rene said, “I have now taught two children of teenage women I helped when I worked at AWARE. It’s so cool to see them doing great now. I like feeling that I can make a difference.”
Rene said her favorite times were, “Camping with family across Australia, trudging across Mud Bay to wonderful friends and the cabin, swimming at Flathead Lake, hiking in Glacier National Park, canoeing the Minnesota Boundary Waters Wilderness, laughing with friends, and enjoying the amazing natural beauty of Alaska.” She wanted to be sure to thank “the friends, colleagues, acquaintances, medical professionals and strangers who have been loving and supportive throughout.”
A celebration of her life will be sometime after the Juneau folk festival. In lieu of gifts or flowers, Rene requested donations to Dawson and Eliza Walker’s college fund: Alaska USA 1753315, mailed to:
Alaska USA Federal Credit Union
P.O. Box 196613
Anchorage, AK 99519-6613
Haines writer Heather Lende is finishing her third book of essays, “Finding the Good.” This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.