Carol Wall's joy-of-life story lives on
By Ralph Berrier Jr. The Roanoke Times
Cancer took Carol Wall’s life, but it did not take her story.
Even while hospitalized following her third diagnosis of breast cancer, Wall made the final edits on her memoir from her bed at Lewis-Gale Medical Center, dictating them to her husband, Dick. The resulting book, “Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart," told the story of living with life-changing afflictions, yet still finding joy and meaning in living.
The book came out in March of 2014, but Wall was too sick to promote it and revel in the good reviews it received nationally. Her husband and three adult children stood in for her, speaking to book clubs, cancer survivors and anyone who enjoyed a good story.
They will continue to do that even though Wall died later in 2014. Thanks to her writings and her family, Carol Wall’s story lives on.
“It’s a pretty good gift for her to leave,” Dick Wall said. “I think it will be around for a long time.”
An author, essayist and retired high school English teacher, Wall grew up in Radford and had lived in Roanoke for nearly 20 years. She was a regular contributor to Southern Living, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications.
She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995 and 2004. When she began her book, she envisioned it as a memoir about living with cancer, her son, Phil Wall, said. However, the story took a turn when she met “Mister Owita,” a Kenyan gardener who teaches her that life is fleeting and should be lived and enjoyed to its fullest.
Owita (not his real name; Wall protected his identity) was hired to repair the Walls’ neglected yard and landscaping at their southwest Roanoke home. Through the course of the story, Wall learned much about her mysterious gardener. He was an immigrant from Kenya who held a doctorate in horticulture, but he also had an affliction of his own. He had HIV.
The pair built an unlikely friendship, bonding over flowers and supporting each other through their respective illnesses. Before Owita died in 2008, Carol and Dick Wall had helped raise money for his medical bills, assisted with insurance claims and sought to make Owita’s final days as peaceful as possible for him and his family.
The book earned excellent reviews when it was released. USA Today’s review stated that “[g]race and gardening go hand-in-glove in this fine book about what really matters in life: friendship, kindness and watching a garden grow.” The New York Times called it a “beautiful book” and said readers will get a “new appreciation for how far roots can travel for nourishment, especially those that spring from our hearts.”
Sadly, Wall’s illness prevented her from appearing at speaking engagements and promoting her book. In July, doctors told her family that she had paraneoplastic syndrome, a condition in which the antibodies that were fighting the cancer attacked her nervous system and her brain.
“That’s when we knew this would not have a happy ending,” Dick said.
In Carol’s absence, Dick, her sons Chad and Phil, and daughter Jenny Gelfand, spoke for her. At times, Phil Wall said, filling in for his mother was difficult, but he knew she wanted them to do it.
“The last clear conversation I had with her was in July and the last thing she said was, ‘You take care of our book,’” said Phil, a filmmaker in Philadelphia. “Sometimes, I’m bitter. Here’s an author who worked so hard to do this and finally see it come to fruition. When she got sick, she said, ‘I hate this … Right when we were going to pick our fruit.’
“But then I think how beautiful it is that this actually came out. She finished it in the final weeks when she was capable of doing
something like that on this earth. What happened is extremely powerful.”
Wall was born in Radford, where her parents, Evelene and Charles Fretwell, ran the downtown Alleghany Hotel and Newsstand. She and Dick fell in love while both were Radford High School students. They got married in college, when Carol was just 20 years old and Dick 19.
She taught high school English in Nashville, Charlottesville, Radford and at Roanoke Catholic. Dick became a lawyer and a high school basketball coach, including a nine-year stint at Roanoke Catholic, where he guided the team to three Virginia Independent Schools Division II championships. Both Walls retired in 2004, when Carol decided to work on her book. Shortly after retirement, however, she had surgery.
She was well enough to write her book, which was finished in late 2013, but then became too sick to leave her bed. Dick, who said that Carol had been a dutiful, supportive coach’s wife in the bleachers for many years, was ready to support her.
“This was supposed to be her time,” he said. “This was supposed to be when I’m in the bleachers and I’m carrying the bag.”
As it turned out, her family was able to help her and support her in a different way.
“It’s surreal to have that book as a tangible piece of evidence for my family to show who my mother was,” Phil said. “I have to do whatever is in my power to tell her story, although she’d be a hell of a lot better at it than I am.”