Stop and smell the roses, enjoy life while you can, laugh and recognize the things that really matter.
If Rick Saunders were here today, those are likely some of the words of advice he’d share, his wife Sheila and daughter Liz agreed Wednesday.
“He just loved life, and life is such a gift,” Sheila said in the living room of their White Rock home. “It was like he inhaled life. A lot of times, I think, we don’t.”
Saunders died April 2, nearly five years to the day after receiving a double-lung transplant necessitated by his 2001 diagnosis with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic and progressive disease that scars the lungs’ air sacs and, over time, makes it difficult to breathe and get enough oxygen into the bloodstream.
He was 69.
Well-known with his brother Dan – through the four decades they owned and operated White Rock Mufflers at Oxford Street and Marine Drive, which they sold in 2012 and is currently home to the Newport development – Saunders was “like a warrior” through the rollercoaster of his disease, Sheila said.
His body began rejecting his new lungs about 18 months ago. Given about three months to live at that time, Sheila said her husband “rallied” back, gaining the family a further 15 months together.
“He wasn’t really accepting the three to six months (prognosis),” Liz said. “He was like, ‘No.’”
Reflecting on his life, Sheila and Liz said a message they want to share echoes one that Saunders and the family put out shortly after his transplant – about the importance of organ donation and knowing the process of becoming a donor.
For their family, news that lungs had become available for Saunders was “like we won the lottery,” Liz said.
To this day, they know very little about the donor, not even age or gender. Sheila remembers overhearing at the time that the person may have been a young woman. The family understood the donor had been in an accident – “the lungs were quite bruised,” Liz said – and that he or she was “quite short.” As well, that due to the size of the person compared to six-foot-three Saunders, both lungs were transplanted as one would not have been enough.
Regardless, they hope a pair of letters that were sent to the donor’s family after the transplant – and another they plan to send in the coming weeks – sufficiently convey the difference that decision to donate made.
“We should tell them that we got (another) five years,” Sheila said to Liz.
For Sheila, the memories with her husband – the second oldest of five siblings – span not just five years, but more than five decades. He caught her eye in Grade 8 at White Rock Junior High, but the couple didn’t actually start dating until two years later.
Sheila, whose family moved to White Rock when she was 12, remembers that her proficiency in French turned out to be a good trade for her future husband’s proclivity in social studies. Each was a poor student in the other subject, she said.
“I forgave my father for moving us here,” she said, laughing at the memory.
The sweethearts married in 1969, and went on to raise two children and revel even further in the arrivals of their two grandchildren, now aged 15 and 12.
Liz described her dad as the “heavy hand” of her two parents during her childhood – “You couldn’t get one over on him,” she laughed.
He showed his love for others by helping them, she added, citing car repairs and loans as among a few of those demonstrations.
He had “such a good heart, big heart,” Sheila said.
Sheila said her husband’s passion for working hard and doing well was evident in high school, and that that drive was among the characteristics that hooked her.
“He kind of knew what he wanted and was willing to work hard to get what he wanted,” she said. “He loved owning that corner down there. He was really proud – and he should be proud.”
At the same time, “he always made me laugh.”
Sheila described the response from friends and the community to her husband’s death as “pretty emotional,” but as difficult as it was to say goodbye, that she is grateful she had the chance to say everything she wanted to say before he died.
“I feel very blessed,” she said. “Just to be able to share the end of this journey… I don’t have any regrets.”
A celebration of life is set for 2 p.m. April 28 at the Semiahmoo Fish and Game Club, 1284 184 St., and Sheila encouraged anyone who shared her husband’s passion for classic cars to get behind the wheel in his memory.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the transplant Research Foundation of BC at www.trfbc.org
Anyone wanting to register as an organ donor, or in learning more about it, may do so at www.transplant.bc.ca