When the Lights Went Out
We found our big fuzzy buddy, Maxx, at the Sarasota Humane Society shelter almost fourteen years ago when he was just eight weeks old and weighed in at 27 lbs. Two days ago Maxx’s cancer and pain became more than he could bear and he let us know. The day my husband and I dreaded was upon us. We set the wheels in motion with our vet to release him from his suffering. Today Steve, our small dog Beau and I said goodbye to Maxx. We saw him off with affectionate head and belly rubs. Beau sat by his head and lovingly licked his face as the light went out of Maxx’s eyes.
We changed our minds a thousand times during those two days and agonized over our decision each time Maxx had a good moment; with no wheezing or groaning with each move he made. Though the three of us will miss him, it was the right choice. There were no more options for our friend. We gave him the best life we possibly could when we rescued him from the pound. He gave us joy, friendship, protection, affection and trust. He most assuredly gave as good as he got each and every day, as though he knew the short life he might have had if we had not stopped into the animal shelter those many years ago on a whim. Love is an amazing thing.
It was two days ago, feeling rootless and lost and needing a distraction from my grief, and feelings of dispirited gloom as I thought about a future without Maxx, I went on the Internet to see what was going on in the larger world. I came across an article in a Detroit paper with a headline that said something like “Woman dies after a power outage occurred in her home.” It must be a rare thing, I surmised, to die from having the power go off in a house. I imagined the occupant had been electrocuted when power was restored. The power has gone off in my house dozens of times, yet all survived. I felt compelled to read the article. Thanks to my curiosity, I learned about an astounding woman. This woman was so amazing I wondered why she wasn’t in the news more often when she was alive. Her story is one of courage, persistence, and sheer force of will combined with hard work. I also learned how it was that this brave woman died at age sixty-one just because the power went out.
Her name was Dianne Odell. What astounded me was that Dianne lived her life in an iron lung. She had done so since she was three years old, after having contracted polio. Up until her early 20s she could be out of the contraption for short periods of time. But from then until the end of May of this year she lived inside a metal canister with only her head sticking out of a gasketed aperture. Her parents never took a vacation and devoted their entire lives to giving this woman a quality of life she could not have had in a nursing home. She had many friends who would come and visit; not because they felt obligated, but because she was a positive and upbeat person to be around. Even at holiday dinners, Dianne and her life-giving machine were squeezed into the dining room. She was left out of nothing.
I cannot imagine what that must have been like for Dianne or her family. I was riveted and felt rather appalled at my own ennui and lack of interest in anything other than my own misery. I really did not know what to do with the excess weight of my grief. So, I read on. I had to know more. I deepened my Internet search about this woman. In some strange way, her life and her commitment to living it fully was helping me deal with my unhappiness over the impending loss of my canine child.
What I found mind-boggling about Ms. Odell is how from that metal tube she managed to graduate high school. There are young folks all over this country dropping out of school because they are bored, lazy, or just don’t see the point. Dianne attempted to get a college degree until health issues interfered. The college conferred an honorary degree upon her, not because anyone pitied her, but because she went on to live a productive life. She was an inspiration to so many people. She gave speeches to the Rotary, worked the phones for political campaigns and did tutoring. What was most remarkable was that she wrote a children’s book called Less Light by using a voice-activated computer. Dianne didn’t want to dictate the words to someone else, she wanted to write it herself. By all accounts, it was something about which she was adamant. It took more than twelve years for her to write the book. Voice recognition software was frustrating when it first came out. A few years ago by the grace of friends, family, and a fundraiser, she had a computer that would allow her to write her book. Less Light is the story of Binky, a small star who wanted to become a wishing star. I am hoping this book is at my local library. I would like to read Binky’s story. It would seem that Dianne did far more than just wish for things to happen. By sheer force of will and the unconditional and unbounded love of her family she made things happen. She became an activist, an author, a good citizen and helped others.
Discovering Dianne gave me a kind of comfort in the face of my sorrow. Her life is an inspiration. She was limited only by her body. She made a lifetime in an iron lung count for something. I understand that the quality with which a life is lived is what matters. It does my heart good to be reassured of that.
Sheer force of will could not keep Ms. Odell alive when the power went out at her house and the generator used for backup failed to kick on. Dianne’s father and brother-in-law were manually pumping the machine trying to keep her alive until help arrived. Dianne’s health had been declining over the past months and the power outage was more than her body could withstand. How agonizing it must have been for her family to watch in helpless horror while their best efforts failed to save her. I consider how loud the silence in the Odell house must be—deafening without the rhythmic pumping of the iron lung. My gut wrenches just thinking about it.
I find it difficult to comprehend a life spent in a machine for longer than I have been on this earth. I cannot even fathom the kind of depth of love and affection the Odells had for their daughter that they gave up their own lives so that Dianne could have one. I have never been tested to that extent. I’d like to think that I am capable of such selflessness, but I don’t know for sure. Freeman and Geneva Odell, their daughters Donna and Mary Beth, and son-in-law Will Beyer are extraordinary people. The article quoted her family as saying they will miss her, but talked mostly of all the joy she gave them and the kind of special person she was. I am in awe of such emotional largesse.
These past two days have been most instructive. I felt really sorry for myself, knowing Steve and I would be losing our big hairy friend, Maxx. That is until I read Dianne Odell’s story. Making the most out of a life is an obligation we all have, and I am inspired by what Dianne accomplished.
I learned a great deal these past two days about the enduring nature of love from a woman I never met, who passed away when the power went out in her house, and a pound puppy I’ve known for years who taught me to love more than I ever thought I could. I am humbled and grateful for their gifts. Wishing doesn’t change a thing. Love and hard work does—along with good things to show for a life lived. Love is truly an amazing thing and a choice we make each and every day!
At age 10, Anne realized she was never going to get to be Miss America since reading a book was not an acceptable talent. So she went on to get a job and raise a family. Along the way, she fixed meals, picked up toys, helped with homework, and collected a drawer full of rejection slips for her “great American novel.” It was not all bad, however, since she ended up wallpapering a closet with them. She currently designs and creates greeting cards for her tiny company, The Frog Prints, LLC, and also works full-time as a Training Specialist. Anne is currently tethered to reality by a loving spouse, two dogs and the occasional hurricane that blows through Florida, although falling headlong and happily into a book is still her favorite “talent.” She can be reached at