WHITMAN — Less than a month before his death from cancer on May, 15, 2013, Dr. John F. McEwan was thinking of the pain of others in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, assuring their friends and loved ones that faith would help see them through a dark time.
Such events, much like chronic illness “remind us that life is precious and our lives can suddenly change in a moment … you do have the opportunity to evaluate what is important in your life and how you choose to spend your time,” he and his wife Margaret wrote in an email to family and friends on April 20, 2013 — five days after the attack.
An organ donor, he wanted to share that life with others after he was gone, just as he had in his career in education. At first, the family was told that his cancer made that impossible, but a call from the New England Organ Bank advised them that his corneas could and would be used to help two blind people — who could now see the world through his eyes.
“This was the final gift of John’s legacy,” Margaret P. McEwan wrote in a May 18, 2013 email.
It turned out to be a premature coda to that legacy.
Those emails, written faithfully — in every sense of the word — to help inform and bouy the spirits of others during the illness faced by the retired W-H superintendent of schools, have been used as the framework of a new book by his widow, “Every Day Is a Gift: A Couple’s Cancer Journey,” [201 pages, trade paperback, 2018 SDP Publishing ISB 978-0-9992839-8-1 eBook ISBN 978-0-9992839-9-8], for which she shares author credit with him. The book is locally available at Duval’s Pharmacy as well as online through Amazon Books, Barnes & Noble and SDP Publishing Solutions.
“It all started because he was working at W-H and he has so many people … interested in his progress that I sent out emails the entire time he was being treated,” Margaret said in an interview at her home Thursday, June 21. The emails were frequently passed along to friends the initial recipients thought might be interested in reading them. Several people who read the emails later urged her to consider writing a book.
“People were very interested in knowing how things transpired,” she said.
The title is a nod to an inspirational sign John had received as a gift from his Administrative Assistant Michelle (Kelley) Lindberg while he worked at WHRSD.
“When I was trying to think of a title for the book, I thought, ‘That was always our philosophy,’ because we felt very fortunate in our marital relationship,” Margaret said. “That’s the way he was.”
John was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma in 2008, when he had a spot on his scalp examined. While not a textbook “outdoorsman,” he did like working in his yard and never wore a hat when doing so, Margaret said.
“John always said ‘Things don’t happen for a reason — you find a purpose for why things happen.’ I finally thought that maybe I wrote all these emails so that I could compile them and make a book about his journey,” she said. Also included in the book are letters he wrote to W-H staff even before his diagnosis, to illustrate his long-held positive outlook to readers.
“He really believed that you really needed to do what you could in order to bring joy into other people’s lives,” Margaret said.
John McEwan began his career as an English teacher and later as a principal at Silver Lake Regional High School, W-H superintendent from 2001-09 and the first lay president of his high school alma mater Cardinal Spellman.
“It was something he took great pride in being able to do because he was very committed to trying to give back,” she said of the Spellman position.
Initially given a prognosis of six months to a year, John lived for five years in his cancer battle and never stopped working until his health forced him to give up the Spellman presidency in March 2013. They had also done the traveling they had planned for their retirement years — to China, Rome and the Amalfi coast, a Baltic cruise, the Canadian Rockies and Yellowstone — during his illness.
“We attribute that to fortunate proximity to hospitals in Boston where they do clinical trials,” she said of her husband’s long-term battle.
When she got to work on the book, Margaret had one main request to the publisher, referred by her friend, Kathleen Teahan, whose book, “The Cookie Loved ’Round the World,” they published: “Do not edit the emails.” John was an English teacher, she reasoned, and if he dangled a participle — leave it dangling.
She said people who knew John say they hear his voice in his writing. Her accompanying narrative took about a year to write, submitting it on his death anniversary of May 15, 2017 with the goal of publication this May 15 to mark his fifth anniversary year, and was successful in reaching that goal.
“The idea was to provide other people with hope and give purpose to whatever their journey is,” she said. “You hope that in living your life — even if it’s under a cloud — you can find joy every day. … It’s work, but he always said you can choose your attitude.”
The book is also a gift to the couple’s grandchildren, who were very young, the oldest being 8 and 6, when John died so they could get to know their grandfather.
The writing process also helped Margaret grieve and she had Dana-Farber’s Director of Bereavement Services Sue Morris, PsyD, and IMPACT Melanoma Executive Director Deb Girard read advance copies for feedback on the book.
“Margaret captures the essence of living well with cancer,” Morris said. “A must read for families and clinicians.”
“I believe anyone finding themselves on the cancer journey can identify the roads that Margaret and John traveled together and find tidbits of solace, grace and hope to journey down their own roads,” Girard wrote.
W-H named its performing arts center in John’s honor in 2014. Margaret McEwan holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food and nutrition, was a registered dietitian and first female vice president of Shaw’s Supermarkets, from which she retired as vice president of corporate communications in 2004.