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SHELL SHOCKED: The Carla Johnston I knew

By Staff | May 5, 2011

On a typically mild February day I had my annual lunch with Carla Johnston. Little did I know then that it would be the last time I would see her. She knew it, but I didn’t.

Carla liked my column in The Islander and we became friends because of it. I had once mentioned her in it in a humorous way and she called me to tell me how much she enjoyed it. That was 8 years ago. She invited me to lunch. And that lunch was the start of our same-time-next-year annual lunch at the Normandy.

She was mayor of Sanibel when I first met her and this last time around she had fought a hard battle last fall to claim a Lee County Commissioner’s spot, but lost the election. Always of good cheer, Carla smiled often during our lunch in February and told me that she had fought the good battle. I thought she was referring to her defeat by Lee County voters, but she was really talking about her battle with cancer.

She never let on that she had a health issue. As her final letter to friends and family said she wanted to be the one to console, not be consoled. So we talked about the past and the future, as we usually did during one of these most satisfying lunches.

At the conclusion of the lunch, we walked out together. We hugged as we always did and I said same time next year. She gave me what I thought was a wan smile and abruptly walked away toward her car. I thought I had said something inadvertent because she seemed to depart very quickly. It was only when I learned about her death this week that I understood.

Carla knew that she wouldn’t make our lunch next February. She knew what most people around her didn’t know – that her time with us was very limited and that she was quietly making the rounds to say goodbye to people she cared about, but who didn’t know what was going on with her.

Carla was just about one of the smartest people I’d ever met. She knew more than a little about most subjects and to me the highlights of my lunch with her was listening to her expound on subjects I knew little about. Carla was one of the foremost authorities on urban planning and her tenure as Sanibel mayor certainly proved that. She fought for the proper balance between commercial and environmental interests. She believed that the two areas of influence could co-exist and create a model community.

She was the epitome of “let Sanibel be Sanibel.” What impressed me most about Carla is that when you got together with her she didn’t hold court. She was just as interested in the person she was with, as I always was with her. She’d pump me with questions about my activities during the past year before I even had a chance to ask her about her views on the Lee County election she fought so hard in but lost.

Carla was strong willed when she had to be but gentle when she relaxed. She was a great conversationalist and cared deeply for her community and her role in it. To be her friend was a high honor for me.

In a letter she left for her friends she said, “I chose not to engage in the usual life-prolonging medical treatment for my cancer. I made this choice because for me life can only be the “quality of life” that combines using my skill and knowledge with the gifts that happened to make a difference in lives. At my age, I cannot imagine being stripped of the “quality of life” – not burden to others.

“Just know that I love you all. I cherish the times we have had together. I hope that each of you will walk future paths that are as filled with gifts as those I have walked. And I hope that you will pass on this Spirit of Life to those who follow you.

She signed her farewell letter “Carla, the ultimate control freak.” When I received the e-mail from Carla’s son informing me of her death I was on the Auto Train headed back north for the summer and fall. To say that the news came as a shock is an understatement. Moments earlier I had read another email from my assistant in New York advising me that she had just given birth to a healthy baby boy, whom she had named Noah.

In two e-mail communications the message was abundantly clear about the relentless transition of life: We are born and we die; the beginning of something and the end of something else.

Carla’s message was really intended for baby Noah. Carla is definitely passing on the spirit of life to those who follow. Carla, I join the legion of your admirers who are honored to have known you. You left us too soon, but what you left us with is eternal. God Bless and rest in peace.