The Glenn Kass Story by Gwen Tombergs
“I don’t know whether to hug you or kick your ass,” I said as I entered the hospital room in early April 2015. “Why didn’t you call me?”
My friend Glenn laid there looking tired and miserable. He just shrugged his shoulders.
“I just found out yesterday its cancer, Gwen,” he whispered. Glenn had lost his voice in the last few months and whispering was a struggle. “It’s bad.” Glenn had stage 4 esophageal cancer.
Glenn was always a jovial, lovable guy. We met in 1993 in Richmond, Virginia, at the Richmond Renegades hockey team. He had been working for the owner’s baseball team on the west coast and had been asked to come help with their new hockey team. I had been fired from my job in Chicago and my former boss, now the GM of the hockey team, asked me to help get the office up and running. So as I’m sitting in the team’s administrative office at my desk in a safe (yes, my desk was in a safe) in walks Glenn one day and announces “well I’m finally here!” Glenn had been in a car accident while traveling to Virginia so he had to finish the trip in a rental car. Standing there shaking his legs, rattling his pocket change (a habit he always did), this roly-poly man with the big white smile was a bundle of optimism.
“I told my kids I would do everything I could to fight this Gwen,” Glenn said the next day at the hospital. “I want to go to Mayo for a second opinion.”
His oncologist had already told him to get his affairs in order, but Glenn’s attitude to fight this disease convinced the doctor to help get him the appointment at Mayo. Almost two weeks later, he finally got in. He took his CAT scan with him to be read by the experts up there. The news was as grim as it was back home. Lesions showed the cancer had spread to his liver.
But again, the doctors at Mayo were impressed with his positive attitude and will to live and sent him home with a treatment plan.
Glenn called me one day two years after I had last seen him in Richmond. I was working for the new ice arena back in my hometown and we were getting a minor league hockey team. “What have you heard about this new hockey team coming to town? I just got offered a job there,” Glenn said. Knowing that the new team was being welcomed with open arms I told Glenn to go for it. Twenty years later he was still making the Quad Cities his home.
Glenn knew he had a terminal disease but I don’t think he thought he was really going to die in the near future. That sounds weird but who is ever ready to face their death, especially at 48 years old.
After moving to work for the hockey team, he bounced from job to job never really finding a company that fit his skills. He married, had three kids in four years, divorced and lived very humbly in a one bedroom apartment for the next 12 years. His kids were his life. He never complained about his simple life or how many jobs he lost. He always had his infectious smile and his self-deprecating humor that made people laugh. Glenn finally started his own public relations firm and decided to concentrate on small businesses who couldn’t afford an agency. In fact, I think Glenn gave away his services more than he charged for them. But his willingness to help people was endless and he became the “go to” guy. Glenn had overcome adversity for years and kept landing on his feet. This time his luck ran out.
April 30 – 6:12 pm Glenn Kass posted on Facebook:
“Now joining a non-exclusive club that no one chooses. As I begin the fight of – and for – my life, the prayers and good wishes I have received are humbling and appreciated. Saddle up, it’s time to ride. Cckma”
(CCCMA – Cancer Can Kiss My Ass – a nonprofit started by another friend of mine who got cancer at a young age. She died shortly after Glenn.)
So many people wanted to help when they found out about Glenn’s cancer. The outpouring of friendship was overwhelming.
“Where were all of these people when I was looking for a job?” Glenn joked one day I was visiting him at his apartment. That’s Glenn. Always making a joke and poking fun at himself.
“Glenn, this is amazing how many people want to help,” I said. “Gwen, all I want is to do something for my kids since I won’t be here to watch them grow up. If people want to do a fund-raiser then do it for my kids. My first goal is to see my son take the field with his varsity football team in August. After that I’ll make the next goal.” And so it began.
I am absolutely humbled by this gesture. Thank you to Beth at Lagomarcino’s, Pam Fisher at Two Rivers and my other Moline Centre friends. Hope to see folks on the 17th. Also, take time to remember people who battle through something every day. I am just one of many.
One of Glenn’s friends, a writer with a local newspaper, wrote an article about Glenn’s situation. It was titled, Dying with Dignity, and Glenn was very proud of the article. That made everything real and put things in motion.
June 3 – 6:59am Glenn Kass shared a link: www.qconline.com – Q-C man with inoperable cancer wants to ‘give back the love’
“Thanks John Marx for a column in The Moline Dispatch/Rock Island Argus on the benefit. Chemo going well and the fight for time is worth it!”
Some of Glenn’s closest friends put the word out that they were having a fund-raiser and celebrating his life. His sister Allison had come to town to be with him and take him to his party.
Glenn had just completed his second round of chemo and got the news that he couldn’t have the third round yet. He was experiencing bad back pain so they thought the tumor had shifted and was pinching a nerve in his back. The doctor decided to have Glenn start radiation the following week to see if they could shrink the tumor and take the pressure off the spinal cord. It was actually good timing since then Glenn wouldn’t be tired from his treatment and have more energy for his party.
I went over to his apartment on the Sunday before the party to make a plan with Glenn and his sister.
“Glenn, there are going to be a ton of people there and everyone wants to say hi to you,” I said in my protective voice. “We need a plan to have you sit in one place and keep the line moving in an orderly way. I am going to plant myself next to you because I know most of these people and can ask them to form a line in a nice, forceful way. However you have to give me a sign if you are too tired and can’t take anymore so we can whisk you out of there and take you home.”
Glenn nodded his head and said “Gwen, I’m going to stay to the end and say hi to everyone.” His sister agreed.
Most nonprofits would love to have raised this much money. After the party date was set and a many Facebook posts later, there were almost 400 people at his party raising over $25,000 in three hours. Guests were given a “Friend of Glenn” lime green nametag showing our support for our friend.
Glenn said hi to every single person. Even though he still only had a whisper of a voice, he tried so hard to relay how grateful he was to everyone. I tried my hardest to tell everyone before they reached him that he couldn’t talk, but all they wanted was a hug, a picture or a handshake to a friend who was saying goodbye.
It was amazing.
One of his favorite moments was when his friends from the Bettendorf Rotary awarded him the Rotarian of the Month plaque. He beamed as he sat there in amazement that he was awarded this. In the meantime, I was
like a little pit bull next to my friend who had no idea he had an impact on so many lives. Everyone should have a celebration of life when they have a terminal illness. It was beautiful.
The next week Glenn started his radiation treatment at the same time his sister left and his uncle came to town. It was official I had now met his entire family. As I was talking to Glenn in his bedroom with Uncle Henry on one side and me on the other, Glenn said “I’m feeling good about this radiation. I really think this is going to help.”
Ever the optimist, again Glenn never thought it was the end. It was Thursday, June 25 and Uncle Henry was going home Sunday.
I got the text at work Tuesday morning when I was in a meeting. I couldn’t look at my phone right away and forty-five minutes later I realized it was Glenn’s friend Heather, who was taking him to his treatment that day.
“Gwen I’m sorry to introduce myself this way but Glenn is at the emergency room and he wanted me to contact you.”
Panicked I text her back, “which hospital, I’m on my way.”
Sunday after Glenn’s Uncle Henry left, Glenn was alone for the first time in weeks.
Monday night he couldn’t breathe so at 2 a.m. he texted his Visiting Nurse, since she lived nearby. She told him to take an anti-anxiety pill and was on her way. After she arrived she immediately called 911 and a firetruck arrived within minutes. As the firemen carried Glenn to the ambulance, Glenn joked “you know a year ago you couldn’t have done this ‘cause I was so heavy.”
Glenn now weighed 120 pounds.
As I rushed into the Emergency Room, he was conscious but so tired. This one had scared him. His friend Heather sat on the other side of the room extending her hand introducing herself to me.
“I’m so sorry to meet you like this,” she said. I found out later we had met a few years earlier. Small world.
“Gwen, I couldn’t breathe and was panicking,” Glenn said. “Why didn’t you call me?” I said in a stern voice. “Day or night I don’t care.” Nodding his head Glenn said, “I knew the Visiting Nurse lived nearby and could get there quicker. I think the radiation made the tumor worse.”
What do you say to someone who is still fighting?
“Glenn, you don’t know so let’s see what the doctor says.”
It’s now Tuesday, June 30, 13 days after Glenn’s fundraiser. The doctors determined that Glenn had fluid in his lungs but the right one was worse than the left so they choose to only drain that one.
“They will decide tomorrow whether they do the other one,” Heather told me that afternoon. “He wants to know if you will stop by his apartment and get his journal. He wants to write each of his kids a letter and hasn’t done it yet.”
I found a journal and brought it to the hospital. Glenn was so weak and tired I offered to have him narrate the letters but he wouldn’t hear of it.
“I’m getting my thoughts together, Gwen, and I’m not ready. They will all be similar but I want to write them,” Glenn said. When I left the hospital that night Glenn was laying there with his phone in his hand, Facebooking his prognosis through the night.
The next day Glenn perked up and the doctors told him they were not going to drain the other lung. Our local baseball team had given Glenn one of their special hats they were giving away and his friend Heather brought it to him. Glenn was a huge sports fan and this meant a lot to him. He posted the picture and thanked the team’s GM and owner. Glenn was convinced he was going home and back to his radiation treatment.
Thursday was as equally good. By the time I arrived in the afternoon the room was full of nurses and visitors. Glenn, as usual, had been posting on Facebook all day and felt like he was bouncing back. He was feeling better and his breathing treatments were strong.
Just like usual, Glenn was joking with everyone. After the visitors were gone, I asked if I could help with the letters to his kids. Again, Glenn said no he wanted to write them himself. Since he was doing so much better I let it go.
Friday, July 3. It was a holiday for most people. I got up and saw Glenn had posted that morning.
I texted Glenn at 9 a.m. asking how his morning was going. He texted back, “not good, another incident. They are assessing now.”
“Crap! Can I come up now? Who is with you,” I texted back. “Want me there?”
“Not in room,” he texted, “ask Allison.”
“Asked Allison, on my way,” I texted as I walked out the door.
He was in ICU when I arrived. He had a big mask over his mouth and wasn’t able to whisper to me. His phone was plugged in charging and laying by his pillow.
“Let me text you and you can respond,” I said desperately trying to communicate with him. I texted him, “try this.” Glenn was trying so hard to make his fingers find the keys but kept hitting the space bar over and over and over. He couldn’t concentrate and form the words. That’s when the doctor came in.
“Is it OK to talk in front of Gwen?” the doctor asked in a monotone voice. Glenn nodded his head yes.
“He said yes, yes,” I desperately told the doctor so he would talk in front of me so I could relay this to his family.
“Glenn this is not good,” the doctor said. Glenn just looked at him with this large mask over his mouth, unable to talk or communicate.
“He knows this is bad,” I said to the doctor. “He knows the severity of the situation.”
They brought Glenn a clipboard and paper to see if he could write. It wasn’t readable.
“We think you need a stent in your throat and we want to airlift you to Iowa City because they do more of these up there,” another doctor said.
Glenn nodded his head again as I looked at the doctor in disbelief. All of his friends are here, is all I could think. They had brought his belongings from his hospital room to the ICU.
I am convinced they knew he was not going back. I was gathering his things to drive to Iowa City to meet him since they were airlifting him.
“Glenn I’ll see you there,” I said reaching for his phone that was still plugged in. His hand stopped me. He still wanted his phone with him. I knew he still wanted to communicate with his friends, to tell them what was happening.
I stepped out of the room to wait for them to get ready for the trip. I was handed his phone a few minutes later. As I called his sister Allison to say it’s time to come back, I knew it wasn’t the disease that was killing Glenn at the moment. It was not having his phone, his lifeline, to show he was still fighting the fight.
Glenn was resting comfortably in the University of Iowa ICU unit when I arrived. His Physician’s Assistant came in to talk to him. As I was sitting there holding his hand, he was conscious with a breathing tube down his throat. She was so kind and started telling him his fate when his ex-wife and two older kids walked in.
His Ex is a nurse so it was nice to have her there to hear it all.
“I know it’s your wishes to have your entire family here so we have told everyone to gather,” the PA said to Glenn. Glenn’s brother was already scheduled to come in on Sunday but obviously everything was moved up on the schedule. “We will not take out the breathing tube until you have everyone here.”
Glenn nodded his head. He understood. I’m not sure he was ready but he understood.
July 4 – 5:37am Glenn shared a link on Facebook: “My favorite lost classic.”
The Beach Boys – Sail on Sailor Live (2012)
Saturday, July 4. 7 a.m. I texted Glenn saying he must be feeling better since he posted on Facebook already that morning.
He said “I’m hanging in there.”
My sister offered to drive up to Iowa City with me not wanting me to be alone for the 45-minute drive. I took her up on it telling her she may or may not see Glenn. The pit bull in me still wanted to protect my friend and only do what he wanted to do. This morning Glenn was able to write on a clipboard so even with the tube down his throat he was able to communicate. He told me he chose the hospice facility he wanted to go to when he got out.
I was very excited that he chose that one and knew that he really wanted to be home where people could visit him. His sister Sherrie was driving from Michigan and would be there by that night but I didn’t want Glenn to be alone. He was still checking his Facebook and texts reading all of the outpouring of love and friendshipcoming in. I asked Glenn if my sister Jayne could say hi and he nodded yes. Glenn’s ex and kids arrived just as the PA was coming in to give an update and bring in a pulmonary cardiologist.
As we all gathered around his bed, the PA was explaining that they saw fluid around Glenn’s heart and it looked like the cancer was there. The tumor was paralyzing his diaphragm and not allowing it to expand so he was just breathing with his chest and wasn’t strong enough to breathe on his own. She knew that Glenn’s brother, Brian, was due in on Sunday and his sister Allison on Monday so it was time to keep Glenn comfortable until everyone arrived.
Now that some family was there I left saying I’d see him tomorrow.
July 4 – 11:04am Glenn’s Facebook post from the University of Iowa:
“Hi all. Airlifted here Fri with breathing issues. Have a breathing tube. Have decided to prepare for final approach. It’s been a great journey and enjoyed it. Thanks to all who I was lucky to share the ride with. More to come when we get there. Love to all!”
There it was – reality. Glenn had started his public journey saying goodbye.
Everyone who knew Glenn knew he was a huge music buff. He used music and Facebook to journal his thoughts during his last few days.
July 4 – 9:02pm Glenn kept sharing on Facebook
IT’S A LONG WAY TO THE TOP (IF YOU WANNA ROCK ‘N’ ROLL) AC DC
“Bon Scott, I can use some more bagpipe right about now.”
July 4 – 1:11am Glenn shared his photo from his mom’s funeral service.
“A memory from my mother’s prayer service in 2013.”
Sunday, July 5. 8 a.m. Glenn had posted on Facebook that morning so I drove up by myself to be with him. Glenn was sound asleep when I arrived so I just sat by his bed on my phone for a couple of hours. Finally around 10am I was rubbing his arm when he woke up.
Glenn was still trying to write on a clipboard, sometimes it was readable and sometimes it wasn’t. With the breathing tube down his throat Glenn was still unable to talk so I told him all about the Facebook posts people were posting. Glenn was in and out of sleep so I decided to read him some of the posts so he wouldn’t miss any.
Unfortunately I could only read one at a time, tearing up as I read them aloud. He waved his hand in the air as if to say “it’s OK, don’t read anymore,” so I stopped. So much for me being the pillar of strength for him.
Finally around 11 a.m. I texted his sister Sherrie to find out what time she would be coming in.
Time seemed of the essence and I wanted to make sure Glenn wasn’t left alone. She said she’d be in shortly. Soon after, Glenn’s ex and all three kids arrived and he perked up to see them all. I had grown to really like his Ex and appreciated her medical knowledge about the situation. Not too much later Glenn’s ex-girlfriend arrived as did his sister, Sherrie.
With the hospital room now full I decided it was OK for me to leave. I grabbed Glenn’s hand, as I did every day I was there, and told him I loved him. He excitedly pointed his wrist with his index finger over and over. I asked if he wanted to know what time it was. He shook his head no and kept hitting his wrist with his index finger. Frustrated and teary eyed I asked him to write what he wanted me to know.
I held the clipboard for him as he wrote “time ran out.” I looked him in the eye and said “yes, Glenn, you are out of time. But it’s OK cause your family is here and Allison will be here tomorrow. I love you my friend.”
Then I kissed his forehead and gave him as much of a hug as you can with a breathing tube in your mouth. I knew it would be the last time I would see Glenn alive.
July 5 – 12:38pm Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over Live (HQ)
“As long as I’m in your heart, it isn’t over.”
Monday, July 6. 6 a.m. Unbelievable. I woke up and checked and Glenn was still on Facebook.
That morning when his Ex brought up the kids this time they had a big surprise for Glenn. Glenn was so sad that he wasn’t able to see his son, Ryan, take the field this fall with his varsity football team. So they arranged to have Ryan wear his uniform to the hospital so Glenn could see him in it. If you look closely at the picture, Glenn is smiling. This is the first smile I’d seen in a week.
Again the outpouring of love, friendship and goodbyes were overwhelming. It’s like we were all holding Glenn’s hand and he was telling us it was ok. Allison’s flight was delayed and she wasn’t getting in until late Monday night so they postponed removing his feeding tube until Tuesday.
His ex was updating me and several other friends on the timeline of what was happening. It was like we were there.
July 6 – 1:18pm Glenn shared a link
Tower of Song (Legendado) – Leonard Cohen
“I ache in the places that I used to play…”
July 6 – 6:35pm Glenn shared another link ABBA THE WAY OLD FRIENDS DO ( ABBA In Concert ) – youtube.com
“By popular demand, this was the song Abba closed each show of its only North American tour with. I witnessed it at Radio City Music Hall Oct. 2, 1979.”
July 6 – 10:47pm Glenn Kass with Ryan Kass and Kenneth Brower II at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
“Thank you to Coach Herrington, Therese Johnson and Kenneth II Brower for fulfilling my dream of seeing the G on my son’s helmet. I was overwhelmed!!! Thank you Geneseo Green Machine Football.”
Tuesday, July 7. Glenn’s sister Alllison finally made it in late Monday and the family was finally together.
July 7 – 5:34am Glenn Kass posted:
“Well, the day has come. We’ve said our goodbyes. The tubes will come out. We know my breathing will be compromised. Stay tuned here for final updates. Relatives will pick up with details. I got to see my son with the letter G. I’m a happy guy. Everyone be should be so lucky. There will be a QC and NJ service. Farewell to all.”
It was a waiting game. But as Glenn’s family began to gather, Glenn spent the morning sharing links and again showing us his humor and grace that we had come to expect.
July 7 -5:46am Glenn Kass shared a link – Katrina & The Waves – Walking On Sunshine – youtube.com
“My favorite song … cue the credits.”
July 7 – 6:57am Glenn Kasss shared a link – Katrina & The Waves – Walking On Sunshine
“My favorite song. Saw them sing it live at Garden State Arts Center opening for the Don Henley “Building The Perfect Beast” tour ” in 1985. See you around!”
July 7 – 7:41am Glenn Kass shared a link – Peter, Paul and Mary – Leaving On A Jet Plane (25th Anniversary Concert)
“Sorry, I couldn’t resist. No comments needed, just click like.”
Immediately there were 213 likes.
Glenn had everything in order for this day. His family had granted his wish for everyone to be together with him at the end. One by one they said their goodbyes and it was time to take out the tube.
This is the time you pray the hardest that Glenn wouldn’t suffer and go peacefully and quickly. It still took six hours until I got the text from his ex that said he had passed.
I think for one moment Facebook stood still.
One of Glenn’s friends posted the lime green “Friend of Glenn” name tag that night. Hundreds of lime green name tag and lime green posts followed. It was like a Facebook toast to Glenn.
I asked if I could go to the viewing with the family since I was leaving on a plane that day for a preplanned trip.
His sister Allison said “of course, you’re family.”
I made a suggestion that I knew Glenn would appreciate. I told Allison they should have his cellphone in his hand in the casket.
“If they could figure out a way to have Facebook on without timing out that would even be funnier but at least put the phone in his hands.” More people commented on how appropriate that was since it was Glenn’s life, his lifeline, to be on his phone and on Facebook.
Glenn taught us all that dying is part of living and did so every day he posted on Facebook.
He showed us how to use humor, love, and friendship and to not be afraid. He showed us how use Facebook to live while you die. Even though we were spread all over the country we were all together for Glenn.
We lost someone special who never knew he was special until he was dying. Funny how that happens. I texted Glenn on Tuesday morning after I saw his last post. I said “Peace be with you my friend.”
Glenn gave us all peace on his journey. God bless you Glenn.