Gail M. Rink: 1944-2010
Hospice of Santa Barbara Executive Director
Friday, August 6, 2010
By David Selberg
“Life is good. In fact, it’s divine!”
It was 21 years ago. I sat in the Unitarian Church Hall with 15 other volunteers. We were all signed up to be “AIDS Buddies,” going through an intensive two-week training to help what were then mostly gay men dying quickly from a horrible disease. Often abandoned by their families and loved ones, not just for having what was thought of as the plague but for coming “out” as gay. That cold rainy night was the last piece of the training and the topic was death.
Gail sat on the steps of the stage with her hands clasped in front of her and said, “You’re all going to be with people as they are dying. You’re going to help them and I am here to help you with how to do that.” And did she ever: That night with our volunteer group, and up until the day she died with all of us in the community. Whether it was new physicians, a school dealing with the death of a student, Post Office employees in the wake of a shooting rampage, or a parent grieving the loss of a child, Gail was there for those who needed help with death and dying.
She and I became the closest of friends from those early AIDS years. The two of us would take road trips together and travel to far away places. We toured covered bridges in Vermont and New Hampshire one Autumn. I remember we sat in one old covered bridge on a bench and just stared at the water below, the sun streaming though the cracks in the roof. We did a lot of this –long moments, sitting quietly and just staring.
Gail grew up in Niagara Falls, New York and her dad owned a drugstore. She so loved him. She would say, “Dad believed in a strong work ethic; he opened and closed the drugstore seven days a week.” She wondered if he ever truly lived in the moment. She somehow doubted he did, distracted by his own drive to provide for his family. “Work to retire” was his goal and he died before he had the chance.
Gail’s world was direct and straightforward: her daughter, her friends, and her work. She was the Hospice social worker who counseled so many people and families in death and dying that everyone in Santa Barbara seemed to know her. Any place in town we went people would come up to her crying, embracing, and sharing their stories. She so valued this sharing of stories that she designed workshops around the theme.
I remember going to Costco with her on Saturday mornings, putting my baseball cap and sunglasses on her just to get through the store by noon.
Gail always had a way of simply showing up and being present and in the moment. Her mere presence would normalize the most painful of circumstances and we all knew that everything was going to be okay when Gail walked in the room. She was a modest and dignified woman right up to her final days at her daughter’s home in Montana.
Gail would share that her decades of hospice work were filled with countless moments of patients and family members living in their memories. Some having memories of suffering, some having memories of deep guilt, and some only holding onto positive recollections. She believed so strongly that memories happened in the past and, if that you’re still invested in the negativity of that memory—still holding on to the anger, guilt, remorse, or hurt—your energy isn’t available for living now. Easier said than done, she would say.
One of Gail’s passions was cooking for family and friends. She loved being in her tiny kitchen while we all gathered in her home, and she would always set a beautiful table with her grandmother’s linens and hand-painted dishes. Comfort food was her specialty. “I’m a butter cooker,” she would say—Grandmother’s Rustic Chicken Stew recipe or Mother’s Hot Fudge Sauce. For daughter Beth, with her hospice mom and surgeon dad, dinner conversations were interesting, to say the least—at times too interesting. “I just want my parents to be normal,” she used to say.
When Gail retired two years ago as executive director of Hospice of Santa Barbara, hundreds of colleagues and friends gathered to honor her. She was so proud introducing her daughter—Dr. Elizabeth Rink, currently an assistant professor at Montana State University, working with Native American communities in Montana, teaching courses in human sexuality and research methods, and doing research in Greenland. Gail absolutely glowed that night.
When Hospice of Santa Barbara was building its new offices on the Riviera under Gail’s directorship, she worked closely with her friend Barry Berkus on the design and the feel of the space. She wanted it to “hug” people as they walked through the door and she wanted a warm and welcoming feel with soft colors. I remember one Sunday going up to the building with her, before internal walls were built and it was just a concrete pad. She walked over to the middle of the building. “The sacred space is going to be right here,” she said, with her arms wide open and a huge smile on her face. Gail was passionate and proud that Hospice of Santa Barbara helped the poorest of the poor, and the rich and powerful, and everyone inbetween, and that services were all free. She always kept a client caseload even when she was executive director and pulled in so many directions at once. Her staff loved her and she mentored all of them, both new and seasoned.
The last two weeks of her life were quiet, intimate, and present, with Beth and me up in Montana. We went to Yellowstone. We had a picnic. Gail loved our national parks, visiting most with Beth over the years. We sat and saw a herd of buffalo pass by; elk in the distance. We looked at the distant river, and beautiful mustard fields, feeling a warm breeze on our faces from the vast valley below us. “Think back on the events in your life that you vividly remember,” Gail once said. “Those are the events where you were living in the moment.” Even in her last days she lived in the moment and lived well, and she reminded all of us to do the same.
The community is invited to a public memorial for Gail Rink on Sunday, August 15, 1 to 2 p.m., at the Court House, Sunken Garden