With such a comrade, such a friend, I fain would walk till journey’s end, Through summer sunshine, winter rain, And then? — Farewell, we shall meet again! – Henry Van Dyke
Diane Olson — my friend and colleague — and I facilitated a management team retreat. I led the morning session. Diane, who would guide the afternoon segment, limped in over the lunch hour. Her leg and back had hurt her for the past three months. She said she had a pulled muscle. During the afternoon session, she could not stand up to lead the discussion. She facilitated the group from her chair.
My telephone rang a couple of weeks later. “I’m in the hospital and have pneumonia,” Diane said. “They did a scan, and my chest is clear but they have to drain my lungs.” She sounded relieved. A smoker, Diane feared lung cancer.
“My doctor is here, I have to go. I will call you right back.” Fifteen minutes later, she called again. “It’s not good,” she said. “There is a mass in my colon, spots on my liver, and a tumor on my adrenal gland.” The pulmonary specialist who examined her earlier had looked only at her lung scan. Her hopes were dashed.
I visited Diane at the hospital each of the next three days. Her room was crowded with gifts and flowers. Visitors came and went. As always, she was more concerned with everyone else’s problems than with her own. She advised me on consulting projects, an upcoming trip, and personal matters. She said I could tell mutual friends and colleagues that she was in the hospital. She commanded, “Don’t tell them that I am dying.” She felt hopeful again.
She called me two days later. It was the call I dreaded, prayed would not come, but knew would. The biopsy was back. Her body was filled with cancer. The doctors had not estimated how long she would live. She believed she would be alive less than a year and more than a month. I sat at my desk and wept for my friend and for all who loved her. Newly divorced and still finding my way as a consultant, I wondered, “How will I make it through all the changes in my life without Diane’s wisdom and support?” The answer came instantly, “Diane taught me well. I am prepared to go forward without her.”
I went to her home to see her. Her bed was in the living room. Three beloved dogs and two large parrots surrounded Diane. The dogs were protective and looked worried. The parrots called the dogs by name. Diane was in good spirits, and we chatted about many things.
I returned a few days later to take her to her radiation treatment. I was shocked at the change in her appearance in such a short time. She took oxygen continually. She used a walker to get to the door. The cancer was in her bones, and her joints were being eaten away. I helped her into her van, and I drove the couple of miles to the hospital. I guided her into a wheelchair and pushed it into the hospital.
We sat in the waiting room. Big black X’s on her legs marked the places radiation was aimed. Diane cried and said, “I cannot believe how fast this has happened.” I comforted my friend the best I could. Diane was hungry for shrimp so after her treatment I took her to a restaurant for lunch. She said, “I have not been angry.” I asked her about fear. “I am not afraid of crossing over,” she said. “I have great faith, and I am curious. I do fear the pain between now and then.” Diane wanted to remain alert and had already refused more potent pain medication.
Diane and I spoke freely of her death. I told her how much she meant to me. For 16 years Diane had been a force in my life. First, she was my consultant when we led industry-leading change at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Then she was my coach when I planned my departure from the newspaper to return to graduate school and to begin a career as a consultant. Later, she served as an advisor on my Ph.D. committee. Finally, we consulted together. Recently she was my coach again as I planned a move to Colorado and a shift in the focus of my work. Extremely mindful, she always knew where my life was headed long before I did. She was a beloved and trusted teacher and friend.
Diane tired, and I drove her home. As I leaned over to hug her goodbye, I told her I loved her. She said, “I love you.” I never talked to Diane again. She died two weeks later.
At age 23, Diane was the youngest person to ever receive her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Minnesota. From 1968 until 1998 Diane was self-employed as a clinical psychologist with a private practice, as an organizational psychologist, and as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. She didn’t think any consultant was worth more than $100.00 an hour and never charged more until recently, when I encouraged her to charge what she was worth.
I met scores of consultants over two decades. Many were good at what they did. None was better than Diane. She made working with groups look easy. She was down-to-earth, plain-speaking, kind and considerate. Workers loved her. She told executives the truth. Sometimes they didn’t like her. I told Diane that if she were a man — and if she cared about money — she would earn $500,000 a year.
Money wasn’t of much interest to Diane. She shook her head at the gurus who got spiritual after getting their money from faddish quick-fix programs that often did more harm than good. She was spiritual — money or not. Her purpose in life was to help other women. I once said her purpose was too limited as she also helped many men. She replied, “I help their feminine side. My commitment is to women.”
Seven years before her death, Diane, her life partner, and close friends took responsibility for a child in need. The child had health issues. For many years, Diane had been staff consultant for a large state agency. Management of the agency wanted her to go on the payroll as an employee for 30 hours a week. Diane wanted the health insurance for the child she loved. She took the job as head of the agency’s Employee Assistance Program.
Diane hated the way the Human Resources Department of this organization was led. A sick, dehumanized, and dysfunctional management abused people routinely. She so wanted the leaders to see the impact their actions had on others. Diane, who was not outwardly emotional, cried as she told me stories of how the executives in this department hurt others in passive/aggressive and cowardly ways.
Secure leaders would have embraced and utilized her grand soul. Instead, the leaders she worked with were threatened by her. She was humiliated and marginalized as she held up the mirror to the organization. A colleague said, “They stripped her of her professionalism.” I felt empathy for Diane. I knew she could not win. The system would destroy her if she did not leave.
She was enraged at the insanity and lost humanity within the organization. She could not make sense of the nonsense around her. She continued to try. Shortly before being hospitalized, Diane called me. “I feel awful. I don’t know if I am sick or if I am just so depressed at work.” She was both, and they were interconnected.
When she told me of her cancer, Diane said, “We cannot put that much stress on our bodies. I was not courageous enough to leave.” I disagreed with her. She didn’t lack courage. She cared too much. She wanted to help the people in the organization and to provide for a child who needed her. Over and over in her final weeks she said, “I am so relieved I don’t have to go back to that place.”
Diane received over 400 cards and letters from employees at this state agency. Efforts to marginalize her had failed. She said, “But not from my boss or his boss.” I am angry at the people Diane worked for. I am sorry for the people who work for them. The leadership of this organization created the culture they live in. They can change it. I hope they do. I hope they can reclaim their humanity.
Diane was a vegetarian who smoked and loved to eat ice cream. When we traveled to northern Minnesota to work, we always had to stop at a casino so she could play the slot machines for a couple of hours while I wandered the corridors.
Diane and I didn’t socialize much. We had lunch a couple of times a month and always shared a chocolate sundae. We exchanged hundreds of books over the years. I finally quit giving them to her because she always forgot to give them back. She was disorganized and always looking for something she had misplaced. We often sent one another dozens of emails in a day’s time. We never had a fight. Jealousy was never a factor in our relationship. We shifted from role to role intuitively when we consulted together.
Many years have gone by. I miss Diane. I miss seeing her come out of her office building and walking to my car with a smile on her face. I miss her profound insights. I miss her forgetfulness. I miss sharing my adventures and misadventures with her. She said, “You kept me alive the last six months.” I didn’t know if she meant the consulting work I sent her way or if I had helped her spirit by sharing the drama and exploits of a newly divorced man with her. I wish I had seen more clearly what was happening to her. I wish I could have stopped the cancer and the abuse she experienced in her last months.
Diane now rests in another place — a more natural place. Her spirit wanders free and she sleeps in peace. She doesn’t have to fight for humanity anymore. I am grateful to her for all she gave me. She inspired me to higher levels of caring, courage, service, and commitment. All of my work bears Diane’s imprint. She will continue to change the world through those she taught. Her legacy will forever be grand and powerful.
We traveled many roads together
We always held the vision.
I could always count on you
In times good and bad.
Farewell my friend
We will be together again.
Excerpted from Learning to Live: Essays on Life & Leadership