HUNTINGTON HARBOUR, Calif. - It seems like any wake - food, family, friends.
The greeter at the door hands out bookmarks illustrated with a woman’s picture and a few notes. Linda Mitchell, it says, loves cooking Thai food, golf and cruising on her Duffy.
Inside, pictures scroll on a big white video screen – Mitchell in Egypt, Mitchell in Alaska, Mitchell in Mexico. Another loop of photos shows Mitchell as a girl in a frilly white dress transforming into a woman lounging on a boat with her husband.
Her warm smile is a constant.
More than 100 people are spending this Wednesday night at the Huntington Harbour Yacht Club to celebrate Mitchell. It’s what people do when somebody dies.
And there, at the top of the stairs, smiling the same warm smile and laughing, is the funeral’s guest of honor herself – Mitchell.
See, the thing is, Mitchell doesn’t like to miss any party, much less this one.
“A celebration of life? When the person is still alive? I know I’ve never been to one,” Mitchell said laughing. “It’s more fun this way. I get to enjoy it.”
To Mitchell’s friends, it’s no surprise. This party – a celebration sparked by death, even as she lives – is just like her.
“She would say to me: ‘I don’t want everyone come to a party and me not be there,’ ” said her friend, Sally Fenton.
Parties and sports; sports and parties – both themes always have been important for Mitchell.
She was at a party – a sport-oriented one, of course – when she met her husband, John. It was 1980 and they went separately to a volleyball party in Hermosa Beach, Calif., sponsored by Parents Without Partners. They locked eyes all day on the court and, later, during post-game pizza.
“He was actually dating someone else at the time,” Mitchell said. “He waited a little bit to ask me on a date, but not too long.”
The two had much in common; they both had children, they were teachers, they shared a healthy obsession for sports.
“I needed someone who was interested in doing things off the cuff,” she said. “I thought, ‘He should learn tennis if he wants to date me.’ ”
So John learned. They married in 1982.
Six years later, at 43, Mitchell was diagnosed with breast cancer. She won that battle, only to be faced with another cancer challenge, in 1991 – melanoma.
Mitchell found herself cursing the days that, as a youth, she lounged in the sun to achieve a California tan. The melanoma spread in 1996 and she took on round two of cancer treatments.
The disease reared its head yet again in 2001. This time, it was in her lungs.
Mitchell survived six major surgeries and nearly a dozen cancer treatments and experimental drugs. After every surgery she asked doctors the same question: “When can I go back out and play?”
She played golf, tennis and bridge. She and John also traveled, taking trips to Israel, Africa, China and Egypt.
“Well, it’s good I got to see the world,” she said. “Because I won’t get to do it anymore.”
FACING DOWN DEATH
The plan was to throw a 65th birthday party in January.
But the plan changed.
To battle her latest bout of lung cancer, Mitchell has tried several chemotherapy treatments and every experimental drug on the market. But her body isn’t responding. Awhile back, doctors told her to move her party up, and an October date was set.
Two weeks ago, Mitchell was so weak doctors and friends urged her to move the party date up again.
“She was in so much pain,” Fenton said. “We all knew we had to convince her to move it up.”
Mitchell’s 65th birthday party also took on a new theme – a celebration of her life.
“A lot of our friends don’t know how to handle this,” says friend William Grieb.
“But this is what she wants. She wants to say goodbye.”
There are few tears. There is a lot of dancing; even more laughter. Guests take every opportunity to hug on Mitchell or hold her hand. They thank her and tell her she is amazing and strong.
“I’m very sad that she’s going to leave me,” Fenton says.
“But she only wanted this to be fun and happy.”
FEAR? NO FEAR
Mitchell passes on the meat skewers and egg rolls, choosing instead to sip on soda water and nibble the kind of oyster crackers you usually sprinkle into clam chowder.
She lays her hand on her chest. A morphine patch under her clothes delivers some relief from the pain.
“The doctors are trying to let me enjoy the next month or two,” she says.
The medication helps her get through this party, and it might help her during a family cruise to Alaska. “My grandkids are 5 and 7, and I know maybe they are a little too young for this cruise,” Mitchell says. “But I wanted to do it with them.”
Like all of us, she doesn’t know when she is going to die. And she’s stopped asking doctors for their educated guesses.
“The fact that the doctors told me to move this party up twice says enough.”
As she reflects on her life, her regrets are down to two – sun bathing and cigarettes.
“There are things that I should’ve done differently,” she says.
But the joy, she adds, far outweighs the regrets.
She looks to her loving husband, son, daughter-in-law and her two grandkids as some of her greatest accomplishments.
“I know it is maybe cliche, but I think the greatest life lesson is to live life to the fullest,” she says.
This party is taking the place of Mitchell’s funeral. There will be no memorial service and no reception. When she passes, her immediate family will hold an intimate ceremony, nothing more.
“No one wants to face these things, but it’s just part of the process,” says her husband, John.
“And, yes,” he adds, “it’s hard.”
Some friends are holding out for a miracle.
“We have not given up on Linda,” Ellen Goodwin says. “We’re hoping she’ll be around a lot longer.”
But Mitchell says she is not afraid to die. She talks about it without a whiff of self-pity.
“It’s OK. I’m good with it now. I’ve just been so sick; enough is enough.
“Plus, it’s not like I really have a choice in the matter.”