Wish Woman

She hasn't got money or connections. But straight-shooting Linda Terrell is helping dying grownups live their dreams.

Sipping coffee at midmorning around Linda Terrell's kitchen table is strictly a "come as you are" proposition. She hands you a well-worn mug, pours the stout black brew, and asks if you take milk or sugar. No fancy china cream-and-sugar set here. The half-gallon carton of milk is sitting in the middle of the table.

At the ends of the rectangular dinette set, Terrell and her friend, Susan Winn, pull long drags on cigarettes between sips and wave away the smoke wandering about their heads. The view from the tiny breakfast nook is of Terrell's backyard--which clearly belongs to the family's 5-year-old pit bull terrier, Buck. The grass is patchy and rutted, the yard filled with trash the dog has pulled out of the shed. Buck lopes around the yard, looking a bit menacing. But, Terrell says reassuringly, "He's a lover, not a fighter."

Throughout the cramped Mesquite house, light switches have been stripped of switch plates. A bare bulb hangs high above the kitchen table. One row of linoleum tiles covers the floor; the rest is bare concrete.

These are home-improvement projects that can wait, Terrell explains. Right now, there's a higher goal to pursue: a project she jumped into last fall that has mushroomed into an obsession.

Terrell--a big, boisterous woman better-known to her biker friends as "Tilt"--is the founder of Wishing on the Lone Star Inc., a fledgling wish-granting organization for people with terminal diseases.

By now, anyone who watches the 10 o'clock news or reads a daily newspaper knows of similar programs--agencies that grant final fantasies to plucky children with cancer or other fatal illnesses. The kids go to Disney World, or take a flight in a private jet, or hang out with a favorite sports star--often with TV cameras capturing it all on film.

But the 45-year-old Terrell has found a vacant niche in the noble fantasy-fulfillment business. Her organization--Terrell, her husband Jimmy, and six friends of friends who serve as the board of directors--grants wishes only to those 16 and older.

Since December, the group has quietly granted four "wishes" to gravely ill adults. One recipient, a 32-year-old mother of a 13-month-old daughter, died last month after spending one final romantic weekend with her husband. Another woman, a 38-year-old mother of four teen-agers, asked that her kids get a Christmas-lights tour; a Mesquite pilot obliged, flying them over Dallas' glittering neighborhoods and touching down to a party hosted by Santa Claus. A young Alabama man, dying of cancer, recently met his sports idol, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, and was treated to a day at the races in South Carolina.

"I know it's the kids who really tug at people's hearts," says Terrell. "They just do. And there are some very good organizations to grant them their wishes. But what if you're a man who just retired at age 50 and find out you have a terminal disease? If you use up all your money on medical expenses, you'll be lucky to keep your pickup truck and buy a six-pack of Dr Pepper on the weekend.

"If all he wants is to see his grandbaby that was just born in Montana, if all he wants is a plane ticket and he can't afford it, then by God, someone ought to be able to help him do that."

It's just that simple to Terrell. An unemployed mother of one--her husband is an elevator installer--she runs the organization by working the phones and her e-mail, pestering merchants for donations, and cobbling together fundraisers, all in the name of making the journey to death a little smoother.

People who are dying, she says, have very humble wishes. They want to visit family or take a short weekend trip. They want to see their children smile. For arranging such feats, Terrell draws no salary. The foundation's bank balance as of March 29 was $217.

Keenly aware that the business she has entered is ripe with scams, Terrell has made a point of filing incorporation papers with the state and legally establishing Wishing on the Lone Star as a nonprofit organization for federal-tax purposes.

But what the straight-talking Terrell lacks, what we have all come to expect of our professional do-gooders, is finesse. She has no United Way sponsorship, no flashy Highland Park matrons planning charity balls or elegant picnics on her group's behalf. Her name has never appeared in a society column. Terrell doesn't know how to write a grant. "I'd like to be able to do this without playing a bunch of games," she says. "But hell, I can wear beat-up tennis shoes or I can wear silk slippers. If it'll help with these wishes, I'll do it."

Her collar is blue, her speech is salty, and her heart is as big as her Dallas Cowboys commemorative Harley-Davidson that takes up the better part of her cluttered garage. Often putting in 12-hour days, Terrell hasn't turned down a wish yet.

Now if only software god Bill Gates will return her e-mail.
Denise Cowle lowers her spindly body onto the adjustable bed in her room at Doctors Hospital in northeast Dallas. The air is thick with the fragrance of roses and lilies from a fresh wicker-basket bouquet. Pinned to the bulletin board on the wall before Cowle's bed is a neatly folded "advance directive"--the legal document ordering medical staff to take no artificial measures to prolong her life once her physician determines death is imminent. It is dated December 14, 1995.

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