Dale Swan was a Jamaica Plain resident who died from cancer in 2015. While she was dying, she wrote a book about her life called, “My Life as Compost.” Dale Swan died before finishing the book, but her husband John Swan helped complete and edit the book. (Editor’s note: John Swan is a former Gazette staff member.) The Gazette recently conducted a question-and-answer session through email with John Swan about the book. (The session has been edited.)
- How did you meet?
In the spring of 2005 I was going through some tough times. I was in the middle of a painful divorce and living on the edge, emotionally and financially.
One evening while perusing Craigslist for a roommate, I accidentally hit the wrong key, bringing up the personal listings. Dale’s posting, which was in the middle of the scroll, came up first and I noticed it included the name of my favorite poet, Mark Stand. It was the only posting I looked at. For about an hour I sat there rereading it, until I gathered the courage to reply.
We met at Doyle’s Cafe and immediately hit it off. She had the most beautiful blue eyes and an enticing mischievous smile. Over the next month we saw each other often, and I was impressed by how supportive and compassionate she was as I struggled to deal with the loss of my marriage.
Dale was also going through tough times since her divorce several years earlier from an abusive marriage. Soon, we fell in love and dedicated ourselves to making our new relationship the best it could be. And it was. I’d never experienced unconditional love before and consider meeting Dale the miracle of my life.
- What was your reaction when you found out that Dale had terminal cancer?
We were both shocked, but not surprised. By that I mean we knew Dale was in danger by that time, but we hoped surgery would be an option. We were also angry. Dale’s care was a tragedy of errors from the beginning. Her doctor missed a softball-size tumor during a regular checkup in April 2013 because he overbooked and didn’t do an internal exam. When they finally found the tumor in September, it took almost another two months to get the insurance company’s OK for expensive imaging, and for the surgeon to put together a plan. By that time, it was too late. I believe she should be alive today. I don’t just blame the doctors. I also blame the medical industry that puts profits above patients. It’s hard to understand how we as a nation tolerate it. The third leading cause of deaths in the US is hospital errors.
- How did Dale’s book come about?
When Dale came out of the hospital after suffering a breakdown because of the lack of physic care, she was very subdued. She had been through so much and felt exhausted. But slowly Dale began to gather herself. Visits from our dear friend and minister, Terry Burke, also helped. He was diagnosed the same week as Dale with terminal lung cancer. They laughed and cried together, and it gave Dale the spiritual sustenance she needed.
Then one day I woke up and came downstairs to find her sitting on the sofa with a big smile on her face and the computer on her lap. “I always wanted to write my memoir,” she said, “but I always gave up. This time I’m not giving up.”
And so she began to fulfill what turned out to be her last dream. It was one of the most courageous acts I ever saw. Every day she sat for hours, growing weaker but determined to tell her story.
- Dale was too sick to finish the memoir and you helped to finish it. What were the challenges in doing that?
Dale finished up to chapter 16, culminating with our marriage in June 2009. She kept writing pieces for a while, but the flow was gone and so was her energy. I quickly sent out the finished chapters to our writer friends who did copy editing in two days and we got the memoir published and in her hands within the week. Her eyes lit up when we brought a box of copies home and she held one to her chest, smiled as tears of joy ran down her cheeks while her friends who gathered in our living room applauded her achievement.
But there was so much more to tell, and as she was dying she asked me to finish it. I promised I would, while thinking how am I ever going to do that?
It took a few months for me to get over the shock of her death. Then one day I was going through her computer and came across a file with about 2,000 words of copy. I started looking through every file and when I was done I had over 100,000 words of old, and recent copy she saved in pieces. I was able to stitch together chapters 17 and half of 18. But that was where the copy ended. So I wrote and editor’s note and finished the chapter in my own words, which ended with her death at home. It was probably one of the hardest things I ever did. My twenty years of experience as a journalist making deadlines helped a lot, although it was still excruciating sometimes.
But I felt something was still missing. I didn’t want the book to end with a death scene, and I realized I needed to write the final chapter “Finding Dale”, describing the first six months of my journey after she passed. I think too often the surviving family members are forgotten and I wanted readers to understand the grief never goes away. You just try to learn how to deal with it, and go on with your life in honor of the one you love.
- How would you describe Dale’s memoir to a potential reader?
Dale titled her memoir “My Life as Compost” because she believed everyone’s story is important fertile ground for others to grow in. She dedicated herself to writing “an unpolished heartfelt attempt to connect one person’s life with another.”
Dale certainly didn’t hold anything back. As Renee DeKona, one of Dale’s closest friends put it, “Dale’s evolution from young wife and mother into a wise woman and healer is quite a journey. Readers are fortunate to be able to tag along as she tells her intimate, hilarious story that will make you laugh, make you cry, infuriate you and inspire you.”
- Did you learn anything new about Dale in reading the book? If so, what?
Dale and I talked about everything, our lives, our hopes and dreams, all the time. So I knew about most of the stories. But it was the rich details, humor, pathos and context that gave the stories new life to me.
There was one part of the memoir that did surprise me: Dale’s life regression therapy sessions. I tracked down the therapist and he gave me tapes of her five sessions. In the first four she recalled past lives while under a light trance. But in the fifth one, lasting three hours, she described life between lives, including her death, ascension and dealing with higher beings. It was as close as I could come to knowing what happened to Dale as told in her own words. And it had a profound affect on me as I asked the unanswerable questions.
- What do you hope people take away from reading the memoir?
That we are all connected, and that every life is important, and interesting. I also think Dale’s joy for life and her compassion, even for those who didn’t treat her very well, is a lesson we all need to hear in these troubled times.
I know Dale also hoped her memoir would inspire others to write about their lives.
- Where is the book available to buy?
Hard copies at available at three on Dale’s favorite stores: Cobwebs, On Centre and Fire Opal. Folks can also contact me directly at [email protected]
A free digital version is also available at:
daleswan.weebly.com. That version includes color photos, the song “Letting Go” I wrote with Justin and Colleen Kleya from The Grass Gypsys, and the audio from an online interview Dale did February 2015 with her friend Kay Adams from Journalverse.
- Anything else you would like to add?
I miss my sweetheart so much. She was a true soul mate and the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. I hope that her memoir keeps her extraordinary life alive and gives solace and courage to readers who are facing difficult challenges in their lives.