Final Farewell

A journalist faces a friend's mortality in 'Goodbye, Walter'

Sun City retiree Walter Schifter had beaten prostate cancer, or so he thought, until the disease metastasized, relegating him to a wheelchair and leaving him feeling helpless, useless and profoundly depressed. Schifter contemplated the loaded gun in his bedroom cabinet, but opted instead for the kindness and compassion from caregivers who brought meaning back into his life.

"Goodbye, Walter is a diary of his final weeks, revealing a personality that allowed him to enjoy life right to the very end as he discovered his mission--teach the rest of us what is really important in life and how we can help other Walters in the world," cancer physician C. Stratton Hill, recipient of the American Cancer Society's Humanitarian Award, writes in the foreword. Schifter shows the dignity and worth of an individual and teaches readers how to care for the dying as he, himself, undergoes his march toward life's end.

This book was written by former Arizona Daily Star section editor RuthAnn Hogue. Hogue was a divorced mother of five children and a recent journalism graduate who didn't initially set out to write a book. As a cub reporter in her mid 30s covering the Sun City retirement community, she wrote a series of articles about Schifter. Over the course of numerous interviews, Schifter told the author, "When anyone dies, I think it should be done with a certain amount of dignity, respect and compassion. Somehow, in my desperate search for relief in the form of death, I rediscovered the joy of living."

"Everyone must face mortality sooner or later," Hogue writes, "whether theirs or that of a loved one. I take comfort in knowing that when that time comes for me, I will be better informed about my choices, and decisions will be easier in my time of need. I owe that gift to my experiences with Walter."

Still and all, meeting and growing deeply fond of someone, only to lose them after an all-too-short period of time is rough. Journalism training instills the concept that reporters should be non-emotional/non-involved, but the line proved blurry for Hogue. "I might be a journalist, but I'm only human," she admitted. "It would have been nearly impossible to maintain total emotional detachment working with Walter (and wife, Lillian). The goal was to maintain objectivity and still present the story honestly and openly. The original newspaper assignment did that. In the book, more emotions were allowed to creep in."

The book is as much a story about living as it is a chronicle of one man's end-of-life experience. It shows not only an intimate and personal journey but acts as a reminder of how the gifts of love and faith are entwined. And as America continues to get older and grayer, this story about end-of-life issues will become more familiar to a larger audience. "In the wake of so much acrimony over right-to-die philosophies and how we treat the dying and helpless, Goodbye, Walter affirms the value of life and an individual's choices, without editorial judgment," says the book's publicist, David Hall.

Advance copies of the book were well received by reviewers, agents and other publishers at the recent New York Book Expo. "Nearly everyone we spoke to was intrigued with the subject matter and the treatment of a hot issue in a positive and non-judgmental way," Hall says.

Hogue has her bags packed for travel because her publishers have scheduled a multi-city author tour taking her to such places as San Francisco, Seattle and Salt Lake City. Local and regional book signings are also planned, and Hogue has just been named the November Author of the Month at the six Barnes and Noble stores in Tucson and Phoenix. "Even for a wordsmith, it's difficult to describe walking into a book store and seeing Goodbye, Walter displayed on the shelf. It doesn't seem real yet," she says.

The book business has proven a positive experience for Hogue, who has new book drafts already in development. The self-professed Type-A personality has nearly finished a manuscript she started as a reporter on how to break into the TV and film industry without selling out moral values. Another pending project, again based on an earlier newspaper series, involves growing pains in the teleservices industry. And she's considering a book based on a series of stories about auto accident victim Talin Rogers of Mountain View High School. "He has a great story," she says, "a story of strength that would be a perfect follow-up to the strength and courage displayed in Goodbye, Walter."

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