Theodora "Tee" Damianos Spencer - "the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen" - passed away early Sunday morning.|
Her husband, Tom Spencer, who exclaimed that upon first seeing Tee in 1955, was her constant companion ever since they met.
In the past few years, Mr. Spencer, a pharmacist, nursed his wife on his own, because that's what Tee wanted.
Beauty was a hallmark of Mrs. Spencer, one she surely would like to be remembered for. Her face was gilded in cheekbones, with almond eyes that smoked without makeup. And she had a waist so slim it left one wondering where she put her internal organs.
Mrs. Spencer was often told she looked like Sophia Loren. These days, a woman that attractive may cycle through two or three husbands.
But Mrs. Spencer was 100 percent a lady and didn't flirt with anyone but her handsome swain, Tom Wesley Spencer.
A friend's teenage son - let's just call him Alan - used to pinch Mrs. Spencer on her bum and call her "Mrs. Wigglebottom." That was likely the raciest thing to happen to Tee Spencer.
Always civic-minded, Mrs. Spencer spent decades in community organizations like the Children's Home Society, the P.E.O, Junior League, Rotary and Women's Club.
She loved to say that she "started" what is now the Palm Beach Zoo. "We had just one monkey," Mrs. Spencer later recalled through the densest fog of dementia. (The Junior League of the Palm Beaches was indeed instrumental in the launch of the zoo and the science museum next door.)
Mrs. Spencer grew up in Miami and spent summers in Georgia, so when it was time for college, the bookkeeping whiz chose Piedmont College in Georgia. She became the youngest town clerk in Habersham County, Ga.
Mr. and Mrs. Spencer moved to West Palm Beach in 1960. Her friend, Faith Watson, recalls a very beautiful lady marching up to her in church. "I'm Tee Spencer. I just moved here."
And the two were friends ever since.
In West Palm Beach, the Spencers dwelled in two of life's finer stables: children and church.
They joined the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach in 1973 and attended most every Sunday since.
For 27 years, Tee volunteered in the third-grade Sunday school class.
The Spencers decided to adopt children because they each carried a gene for hemophilia, a genetic blood disorder. "I got to choose you," she said when she was pleased with her daughters.
In 1964, their first daughter came to them - a doe-eyed, beautiful newborn they named Stephanie Lane.
When they adopted again, Mrs. Spencer requested a Greek child, perhaps foraging for a Loren lookalike.
And in 1967, along came a husky blond kid who talked back a lot - me, Susan Lynette.
Now, prior to adopting, Mrs. Spencer had a propensity to brag. After she had children, the bragging went galactic.
She'd light up the phone tree to report her daughter won the homonym contest at school.
"Boy, we got tired of hearing that!" Mrs. Watson recently recalled with a smile.
Trapped with one hyperactive, boy-crazy child (Stephanie) and an incorrigible, precocious one (me), Mrs. Spencer took refuge in painting.
Once, she had painted a yellow rosebud, shading its petals just so. Later, she spied yellow paint on the end of my nose.
"I was just smelling the rose, Mommy."
Yes, clearly, at times we drove her bat crazy.
Yet, she rarely cursed.
No, that came later, during the hard part.
For, you know, there's always a hard part of life. A hard part that turns ordinary times into extraordinary ones.
For decades, the Spencer family enjoyed a lustrous streak of decades of good health and prosperity - times when the worst thing to happen was the rare dental cavity or having to work a 12-hour day at their bustling business in Palm Beach, Lewis Pharmacy.
Mrs. Spencer led a fitness class at church and walked 3 miles a day. She was a portrait of health, a Teetotaler who wouldn't know which end of a cigarette to light.
Yet one day in 2011, Mrs. Spencer began vomiting and became jaundiced. She was yellow as a canary when doctors figured out why: there was something pressing on her bile duct, something on her pancreas. A tumor. Cancer? They wouldn't know till they removed it. She underwent a complex surgery to remove the mass and reroute her digestive system.
The surgery alone nearly killed her - twice.
She couldn't eat or drink for months, and spent so much time in the intensive-care unit - both on and off ventilators - that the medical staff was surprised she survived.
After four months in the hospital and rehab centers, Mrs. Spencer came home.
But not the same Mrs. Spencer.
She became reclusive, anxiety-ridden, agoraphobic. Once interested in everybody's business, she was now only interested in what time it was. She had no idea, no memory of how sick she was - and Mr. Spencer didn't tell her, because he was always protecting her. She didn't want anyone to know she had Stage IV pancreatic cancer .
Yet it was during these extra innings of life that Mrs. Spencer saw her adored grandchildren flourish. The younger ones, Marina and Aubrey, gained entry into arts schools, and the youngest, Wesley, showed amazing artistic skill. The eldest ones, William and Stephen, entered the University of Florida.
And she saw me, Susan, her exact opposite, write a book, telling everyone about her own fatal illness, ALS. The book, "Until I Say Good-bye," hit the bestseller list and garnered a movie deal. Mrs. Spencer nearly lit up the phone tree like the old days.
Time for the really hard came with chemotherapy and radiation. Already so debilitated, we as a family questioned putting her through that. But Mrs. Spencer wanted it; and what Mrs. Spencer wanted, Mrs. Spencer got.
The treatments left her delirious and bed-ridden for weeks at a time.
Mr. Spencer said he didn't want to say no to more chemo because he didn't want to take her hope away. And sicker and sicker she got.
Finally, Mom's kindly oncologist, Dr. Raymond Tsao, gently recommended Hospice, and Mom reluctantly agreed. (Still scheming about who she could set up with the single, handsome doctor.) Within days, Mrs. Spencer was admitted to the Hospice wing at JFK Medical Center, a beige oasis free of beeping machines and the hustle of a hospital.
Calmly, at peace she laid there, sedated but able to hear how much we loved her and how grateful to her we will be forevermore.
On the second night, daughter Stephanie slept soundly on a fold-out beside Mom's hospital bed. Stephanie was the only other person besides our father that Mom would allow to nurse her.
Stephanie had taken medication to help her sleep, yet at 4 a.m. she awoke to a feeling of wisps of wind around her head.
She and a nurse checked Mom, who was warm but not breathing. She had just passed, her soul breezing away.
She was 73. In addition to those named here, she is also survived by her mother-in-law, 97-year-old LaFon Spencer; two sisters, Ramona Motz and Martha Sue Fox; a gaggle of nieces and step-nephews and a legion of friends.
We'll gather for a celebration of her life on Wednesday at 3 p.m. at First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach. All are welcome to attend.
The family requests in lieu of flowers, donations be made to First Baptist Church or the Children's Home Society.
About the author
Susan Spencer-Wendel grew up in West Palm Beach, where her parents, Tee and Tom Spencer, taught her to love the outdoors and be mindful of her studies. She spent most of her journalism career as courts reporter of The Palm Beach Post. Last year, her memoir, "Until I Say Good-bye," became a New York Times best-seller. The book is an uplifting chronicle about her "year of living with joy," in spite of her amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. It is now available in paperback (Harper Paperbacks, $14.99).
On the last page of the book, Susan offers a poignant acknowledgment to her mother, Tee, who insisted that her daughter practice and develop her gift of writing.
Published in The Palm Beach Post on Mar. 4, 2014