Monday, June 18, 2007

Cynthia Joyce Russell Dickson

Patty here…

Two upcoming events have prompted me to write this post: Cindy’s birthday was last week, June 12th and my third book will be released on July 3rd. For reasons that you will soon learn, Cindy and my book releases are forever intertwined.

I met Cindy Dickson on a film set in the early eighties. We had both come to Los Angeles to seek our fortunes, me via Seattle, she via Australia then London then New York then Las Vegas then Alaska. She was Australian but her accent was British. She told me the teachers in the Episcopal school she attended had schooled the Aussie accent out of her.

She had had many exotic adventures—some told, some only hinted at—which imbued her with an aura of mystery. She was a consummate story teller, and I loved to listen to her lilting voice relate tales of growing up on a sheep station in the outback, traveling from Sydney to London on a tramp steamer, acting on the stage in Melbourne, hosting a talk show on Australian TV, writing newspaper columns for papers in Fairbanks and Sitka. After she came to L.A. she turned her attention to writing screenplays and poetry. She also started working on a novel, a stream of consciousness piece that was a metaphor for a life filled with joy and betrayal.

Cindy and I stumbled through the eighties together and much of the nineties, sharing adventures, a lot of Happy Hour hors d’oervres, and a great many laughs. At some point in the nineties our two roads diverged, as Robert Frost would say. We each took separate paths and drifted apart for a while. One day I picked up the telephone and called her. It was as if we hadn’t talked for days not years.

In around 2001 or so Cindy moved to Marin County in Northern California. Shortly after that she began to call me every week on the same day. It was unlike her. Cindy was a free spirit who never kept to a schedule. She told me it was because she had all those free minutes on her cell phone and wanted to take advantage of them, but I sensed some darker truth. She seemed unhappy, lonely, depressed. Ill? A melancholy overtook her and I began to worry. I sent her a guardian angel pin and told her it would protect her until she could return to Los Angeles where she belonged.

Cindy did come back to Southern California but not to L.A. She said she wanted a more tranquil setting, a slower pace, so she settled in Ventura, a beach town about sixty miles north of here. She was an original and people loved her for it. She joined a poetry group and made many new friends. One September morning in 2003, I received a telephone call from her. It was 7:00 A.M. I was still in bed.

“I’m on my way to the doctor,” she said. “I have breast cancer. I just wanted you to know.”

I was stunned but managed to babble a few words like What? How? The “why” would come later.

I drove to Ventura as often as I could after that. I sat by her bedside during chemotherapy. I walked down the hospital hallway beside her gurney on the day of her mastectomy, stopping only when forced to at the swinging doors of the surgery room. Post surgery I spooned ice into her mouth to quench her thirst.

Despite two massive chemo regimes and enough radiation to nuke a small 3rd world county, the cancer continued to spread throughout her body. The doctor proposed one last-ditch effort to save her life, a third trial of chemo.

In the end it was the pain that controlled her decision. Cindy simply could no longer face that pain or the chemo brain or the debilitating illness. She opted for hospice care at a nursing home instead. Afterward, she questioned her decision but declined to amend it. She got angry for a time, but I never once saw her display a hint of self-pity. She was stoic, never once mentioning the words death or dying. Once during one of our many conversations I mentioned something about the many phases we had gone through in our lives. She responded wryly, “Yes, but I’m not looking forward to this next phase in mine.”

Cindy knew the time would come when she could no longer make decisions about her life or her death, so she asked me to be her Durable Power of Attorney. It was an honor to have her trust, but also a heavy responsibility. She was concerned about dying alone, so I promised her I would never let that happen. The social worker assigned to her case told me that when Cindy was near the end I could come to stay with her in the empty bed in her room. I was frantic. “How will I know? How will I know?” I kept asking her. “You’ll know,” was all she said.

Neither Cindy nor I knew how long she had, so in the next three months we talked a lot. I asked if I could put some of her old photographs in an album. At first she said no but later she relented. When the album was finished, I think she enjoyed showing it to the many friends who came to visit her as well as to the hospice staff. During this period she passed along the guardian angel pin (that I’d given her to her when she lived in Marin) to her friend Doris who promised to pass it along to someone else when the time was right.

Ventura is more than an hour from Los Angeles. On the days I couldn’t visit I called her on the telephone, sometimes more than once a day. November arrived and although Cindy was frail and weak, her spirit was strong and her pain under control. My first book was due to be released on November 22. She was proud of me. She asked me to read it to her, but her concentration was waning and after a few paragraphs she would stop me to ask a question or to reminisce about some past adventure she wanted to share with me.

On Sunday, November 21, I held a launch party for my first book, False Profits. Cindy had been fine the day before, but on Sunday she wasn’t fine at all. I knew when I spoke to her on the telephone that she had turned a dark corner. By the time I got to Ventura that day, her speech was garbled. Still, she was desperately trying to tell me something. Our inability to communicate verbally was agonizing for both of us.

“I’m sorry,” I said to her, “I want so much to know what you’re saying, but I can’t understand you. I just want you to know, I’m here and I love you.”

I kept repeating that last phrase, over and over. Her “I love you, too,” were the only words I could understand.

I sat by her bedside all night, holding her hand, reassuring her I was there, that I wasn’t going to leave, that I loved her. She died at 2:00 a.m. the following morning. It was November 22, 2004, the official release date of my book.

Cindy wanted her ashes scattered in a “lovely garden” somewhere. I haven’t found that place yet, but I will some day. I think I’ve been waiting, thinking that perhaps I would take her back to Australia, find her sister and her brother with whom she had lost touch. I’d tell them about her life and how much she was loved by so many people, including me. I’d show them the photo album. Tell them about the tramp steamer and the poetry. It’s the amateur sleuth in me that yearns to find them.

Cindy had a brother named William John George Thomas Russell, Jr. who may be living in New Zealand and sister named Jean Russell, married name unknown, who may be living near Blackall, Queensland, Australian. Her mother’s name was Catherine Sophia Rose Anderson. Google has turned up nothing. Her friends didn't even know she had siblings. If you can help or know somebody who can, please press the envelope icon below and forward this post.

And to Cindy—I will miss you always...


  1. Patty, I remember that evening, after dinner at Malice Domestic, when you told me about Cindy, and how the depth of your love for your friend, and your commitment to her really touched my heart. This is a wonderful tribute to her, and to your friendship - call it "sisterhood." I wish I could help you find her family and will put some feelers out to my cousin in Australia - he's publisher of a major newspaper there.

    And here's a big lifting of the glass to your new book - way to go, Patty! May you always be blessed with good friends, much love and a great new book every year!

  2. Patty,
    If the definition of a true friend is one who is there for you when times are bad, then you're the best. A friend for life.

  3. Patty,

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful friendship with Cindy with all of us. Your love, spiritual sisterhood, and loyalty are a testament to something beautiful.

    I did a little digging at the Queensland Births, Deaths and Marriages, but even searching anything before 1914 is like trying to prise pearls from a stubborn oyster - no luck there. However, Blackall, QLD only has about 1800 residents in the area: an add in their local paper asking for family info on Jean Russell might help. Or alternatively, approach one of their community services, like a library, and ask the best way to go about it. Yeah, the amateur dective in me likes a good puzzle too. :-)

    Big hugs and a raised glass to Cindy. I'm sure she's raising one to you right now and telling you how proud she is of you.


  4. A wonderful tribute to your wonderful friend Cindy, who will live in your heart always. Sounds like she was an amazing woman and amazing friend. We should all be so lucky to have a Cindy in our lives.

  5. I've always believed that friends are the family you choose. You and Cindy chose well, Patty. Good thoughts to both of you, and thanks for the lovely post.

  6. Thanks, guys, and thanks to Marianne for the Blacknall link. Going there now...

  7. Absolutely beautiful.

    It's a gift when we're allowed the time and wisdom to tell the people around us what they mean to our lives.

    Do not wait another day to make that call you've been putting off.

    I know I'll be on the phone tonight.

  8. Patty, this is beautiful. So are you.

    I am so sorry for the loss of your dear friend, and so happy for her that she had a friend like you.

  9. Thanks, David. None of us know how soon it will be too late. Cindy altered my life and my thinking in so many ways and for that I will always be grateful to her.

  10. Thanks Ms. C. Rae is right. Friends are the family you choose and I have a wonderful extended family, including all of you.

  11. What a beautiful post, Patty. You were lucky to have Cindy in your life. And she, you.

  12. Dear Patty:
    "As in the case of wines that improve with age, the oldest friendships ought to be the most delightful." Cicero

    "Prosperity makes friends, adversity tries them." Publicist Syrus

    "Life has value only when it has something valuable as its object." George Hegel

    Those quotes are exemplified by the life you live. Thanks for the poignant post....and thanks for being YOU.


  13. Thanks, Jon, for the quotes and the poignant sentiment.

  14. What a beautiful post, Patty. And what a beautiful soul you are. You gave her passing a joy and peace she wouldn't have had otherwise. There was an article in the L.A. Times recently about volunteer groups throughout the country who stay at the hospital bedside of dying strangers who have no family or friends for comfort. How much better for Cindy that a beloved friend was with her.

    I have a feeling that you'll locate your family.

  15. Carol, I saw that article in the Times. Don't think I could handle doing that on a regular basis, though. Too sad.

  16. God bless you, a beautiful human being.


  17. Thanks, Groupie. Here's some of the same back at you.