HUNTSVILLE – In his 78 years Harry Wahl did a lot of living, taking in as many experiences as he could. So when it was his time to say goodbye to the life he loved, to his dear wife, to his children, grandchildren and friends, he was ready and at peace with his oncoming departure.
Husband and wife, Harry and Astrid Wahl, spent time sharing memories during Harry's stay at Hospice Huntsville. He passed away on Oct. 13 after a third battle with cancer.
“I have never been so much at peace as I am at this moment,” said Wahl, from his bed at Hospice Huntsville. “I’ve always considered death to be a part of living. I’ve never shied away from it. I’m looking forward, with a lot of curiosity, to seeing what’s at the end of the tunnel. Even if I find there’s no light there, I’ve been a spectator of the universe and that in itself is reward enough.”
Part of Wahl’s peace came from knowing he’s taken care of his funeral arrangements, finances and the home he shared with his wife, Astrid, to help make the transition easier on her.
With humour always playing a role in their 47-year marriage, Astrid joked that he wanted to take care of the funeral arrangements so she couldn’t put him in a suit.
“As husband and wife I think we’ve always had a very close relationship. We’ve been our best friends and best soul mates. We’ve talked about one leaving the other, what it would be like. So we haven’t entered this phase of our life totally oblivious to what it really means,” she said, pausing to fight back tears. “But I think the closer you are, the more you realize how much you’re going to be only half of you or less. For me, the hard part is still to come.”
This wasn’t the first time Harry and Astrid faced saying goodbye to one another.
In 1997, Wahl was diagnosed with colon cancer and that same day Astrid was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“The first time, you really face your mortality,” said Wahl. “The first few days were anxious days. I had to grapple with it, but I had no real fear. I wasn’t ready because of my wife. I didn’t know where she was at and where we were at.”
Wahl was diagnosed while volunteering in Belgium, while Astrid was in Canada. The two were roommates at the Northeast Cancer Centre in Sudbury as part of their treatment.
“I remember when we were diagnosed and he was having so much trouble with chemotherapy that we just didn’t think he was going to live. I literally begged, I said, ‘You have to keep going, you have to try just for me, you have to.’ I don’t have that feeling this time,” she said. “I can’t say you have to fight longer, you have to overcome this, you have to battle through this, no. Reality is now here and for me to make it harder for him, I couldn’t possibly do that.”
Cancer has a long history in his family, with nearly every member battling some form of the disease.
Wahl fought cancer, this time lymphoma, a couple of years ago and his latest battle was with pancreatic cancer.
He stopped eating at the start of the month, as the pain from doing so was nearly unbearable. Wahl was very thankful to Hospice Huntsville president Dr. Deb Harrold for caring about the quality of his life and choosing medication that held off the pain but kept his mind active.
“Without this place (Hospice Huntsville) it would have been so difficult for me because my wife would have had to pay attention to me day and night,” he said. “The caregiver usually suffers the most and this has taken so much of the load off my shoulders.”
Instead of focusing on the negative aspects, Wahl enjoyed his last moments with his family, sharing stories with his grandchildren and memories with his sons and wife.
“It’s been a very rewarding life and I have no hesitation leaving it,” he said. “You can’t ask for more and more. It’s been great.”
Astrid said going through these battles brought the couple closer together and created a deeper bond.
“The sense of having each other is just so much more intense and profound because you have come so close to having that (final) journey already,” she said. “As we come to this final end, I’m so grateful and so blessed I’ve had him as long as I have. The relationship has been outstanding and wonderful.”
Harry and Astrid moved to Huntsville in 1989 when he retired. In Wahl’s career with Ford he had worked with many chemicals, which took a toll on his health. It got to the point where even being around candles made him feel nauseous. Upon retiring, he and Astrid were excited to move to Muskoka, where they had cottaged for 12 years, and looked forward to breathing in the fresh air.
Once settled in the area it didn’t take long for Wahl to become an activist, fighting to make the community a better place for all residents. This, along with his many years of volunteering and working with youth groups stemmed from a legacy passed on by his parents. They were strong believers in investing in others, rather than yourself.
Locally, Wahl was involved in everything from stopping a casino coming to the area, to creating more parkland instead of commercial spaces and teaching youth groups wilderness training.
“Investing in others is so much more important,” he said. “I tried to invest as much of my energy as I could into my community. I didn’t win all my battles, but I tried.”
Globally he volunteered with ministry groups in Austria, Belgium and Germany.
Together he and Astrid taught English as a second language in the Czech Republic.
“He always had this unique sense of humour for getting us into situations,” said Astrid, who didn’t take his suggestion of teaching English seriously, until she found herself doing so just a few weeks after Wahl made the suggestion.
By profession Astrid was a nurse and never considered herself a teacher. She thought they would be teaching young children, which she didn’t find so daunting.
“When we arrived there we had over 50 adults and they were doctors, lawyers, executives, teachers … they were such eager students. They wanted to know perfect English yesterday. I said, ‘Harry, what did you get me into? I’m not a teacher and I’m teaching doctors and lawyers how to speak English,’” she said, admitting though that it was an amazing experience.
Memories like these are what Wahl wants Astrid to hold on to when he’s gone. Thankfully she has many to draw on, as their life together has always been interesting.
“There’s never a dull moment with Harry,” she said. “I knew I could have lost him a number of times before and to have these extra days and weeks and years have been a gift. We have to say goodbye now.”
Thank you to Harry and Astrid for being so open during a difficult time in their life. Harry passed away on Oct. 13 at Hospice Huntsville.