Learning with Gracie, living with grace

Ellen and Gracie, September 2022

Last Updated on March 5, 2024 by Ellen

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. That’s how it was for me and my late friend. We were both teachers and students to each other during our friendship, both of us always teachable.

Gracie Hughes was a fiercely independent, incredibly intelligent, single Irish woman who lived in Malaysia. I met her on Christmas Day in 2018, and she was the best gift in a long time. I was pretty down about my double mastectomy and early cancer diagnosis when I met her in George Town on Penang Island. On that sunny spirited day, she and her little dog Janelle lifted my soul considerably.

Years later, when Gracie had to give up Janelle because she was dying, she seemed to turn off her emotions about the pending loss of her companion. I know this because I was there with Gracie for some of her last days on Earth. Every one of those days was precious to me, as difficult as some of the moments were because of a how disease broke down her body.

Gracie Hughes with blonde and pink hair.

Spouse Theo and I have been to Penang, Malaysia three times on our early retired budget travel tour. It is a place with many positives in Southeast Asia: it has a generous tourist visa policy, it’s near a major airport hub (Kuala Lumpur), has solid health care options, good climate (if you like steamy hot!), there are countless dining and shopping options, and a great variety of people and cultures sort of make it the ‘melting pot’ of the east. It’s easy to see why Gracie called Penang ‘home’.

Still, she was a traveler at heart. A world map hung in the foyer of her condo – it’s the first thing I saw when I first went inside her home.

During our most recent three-month tourist stay in Penang, I spent a lot of time with Gracie in her home, and at the hospital as she ran out of options to extend her physical life.

I was with her when she signed the ‘do not resuscitate’ order; when she learned how to use the devices she needed for her failing body in order to go home (I got a crash course on that in the hospital, too); as she went home after her last surgery; as she searched for foster and ‘forever home’ options for her dear Janelle.

I was at her side that time she nearly died right before a doctor’s appointment. Thankfully, we were already in the hospital for a post-surgical checkup as she started to fade! I tried to comfort my friend — bold, bossy, independent — when she was near tears on her third hospital admission within just a few weeks. She seriously feared not getting out of the hospital again after that close call. Her will to live pulled her through, again.

When Gracie went home again, I helped prepare the spare bedrooms for her family’s arrival. I was there when her strong and kind daughter and sisters arrived from Ireland and South Africa. Gracie had put off telling them how bad her health was, I believe, because she couldn’t accept her mortality – she was full of fear about dying. Also, there were things she still wanted to do on Earth.

We spent hours and hours yacking and laughing, learning and sharing in those days of hospital stays and home convalescence. Some evenings, I wasn’t sure I should have left her alone in her condo. She insisted I go home to Theo, and she instructed me on what to do if I came back in the morning and found her dead. Every day, she was alive though shrunken, and almost always mentally spunky despite her heavy pain medication.

We talked about this life and the next life, men and relationships, dogs and people, disease and nutrition, cultures and travel tales, evil versus good, our past mischiefs and ongoing charitable works.

During the pandemic, Gracie made donations to our Ati projects when we were in the Philippines helping the indigenous tribe survive without any daily labor jobs due to zero tourists. Pictured below are some of our Ati friends who benefited from the henhouse we built for them, so they could sell eggs.

Ati men hold sign that says, "Thanks Gracie"

Since 2019, Theo and I supported her beloved charity Tenaganita, which helps migrant and refugee women. Gracie also did other volunteer work in Penang and brought joy to friends on the island.

At some point in our lives, Gracie and I each decided to stop ‘taking’ and to give back in whatever ways we could. My soul sister.

I have read through our WhatsApp message history since her death. It started in 2019 after our second visit to Penang, and went on until her death in October. We kept in touch that way throughout the pandemic, as Theo and I waited for Malaysia to reopen so we could return our third time. It was during the pandemic that Gracie became really sick. I didn’t know how bad it was until I finally saw her.

Since her death, I’ve relived our joys and fears, jokes and memes and words of wisdom thumb-typed into Whatsapp. I’ve exported and saved our years-long chat. Why? I guess to help me remember the details of our friendship as we both learned how to live with grace, despite sucky diagnoses that challenged our dignities. Life is Now.

Below is one of my favorite messages she sent me in late September while we were traveling in India. It’s from the book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

Text reads, 
The mole: I've learned how to be in the present.
Boy: How?
Mole: I find a quiet spot and shut my eyes and breathe.
Boy: That's good, and then?
Mole: Then I focus.
Boy: What do you focus on?
Mole: Cake.

News of Gracie’s death reached me in October when we were in Jodhpur, India. Her sisters shared a little bit about her final moments. My friend sure was one in a gazillion.

During her funeral, Theo and I were on a train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, the last Indian stop before Pakistan. Services were live streamed from Penang. I watched whenever I had a cell signal on those remote desert tracks. I cried, a lot. When I left Gracie in Malaysia, she floated the idea of meeting me in Rishikesh, India, in a few months’ time. It was a place she had always wanted to visit. I knew it wouldn’t happen.

Jaisalmer was the launch point for our two-night desert camping trip. There, I watched the brilliant night sky and said goodbye to Gracie’s earthly existence.

Then in early November we reached Jaipur, India. That’s when one of Gracie’s sisters sent me photos of the gathering to scatter her ashes on Penang Island. It was the place Gracie called home on Earth.

During all of the time I helped Gracie before her family arrived in Malaysia, Theo was 100% supportive. He was caring for the caregiver whose friend was slowly dying before her eyes.

As I wrote this, Theo had a pretty bad case of dengue fever, and I again was a caregiver to a loved one. When it looked like hospitalization was a possibility for Theo, I thought of Gracie and her strength, and borrowed some. I watched Theo sleep, researched what the blood test results meant, memorized the dengue shock warning signs, and found which hospitals had good reviews by American expats in case we needed one.

An ironic note: the color of the accent wall in the bedroom where Theo battled dengue in our Jaipur Airbnb rental is nearly the same color as the accent walls in Gracie’s home. She loved pink shades.

I miss my friend. She’s gone, yet she’s here. Even though Gracie is not physically on the receiving end of Whatsapp, I’ve sent her a couple of messages anyway. I’d like to send her one right now — on this blog — since she was a big fan of Earth Vagabonds.

Happy birthday, Gracie! Today I will stay in the moment, eat some cake, and enjoy the hell out of it all.

Ellen and Gracie with several cake slices before them at a cafe in George Town, Malaysia.

Thanks for reading, “Learning with Gracie, living with grace.”

Other stories of friendship and loss:

General travel stories from 2105 through today:

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