Wish Woman

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

"Linda has plenty of experience in working fundraisers," Skaggs says. "Her heart is huge and there really is a need for what she's doing now. We have referred several people to her because we simply don't grant wishes to adults. It's been heartbreaking to have to turn people down all these years."

There are some 85 wish-granting organizations nationwide, and Skaggs is in regular contact with many of them. She knows of no agency among them that helps people in the "30-to-50" age range. An Illinois foundation, she says, grants wishes to nursing-home patients. "I think all Linda needs is a chance. She has to prove she can raise funds, and make the wishes materialize. It's tough at first. How do you prove you're legitimate and effective if you can't get the donations?"

In February, Terrell and her board pieced together a wish by scrambling for donations from Mesquite and Garland businesses for Teresa Tipper, a 32-year-old Rockwall woman with a fast-spreading form of lung cancer. The disease was diagnosed shortly after the birth of her only child, Vanessa. Millie Arnold, an oncology nurse-manager at the Texas Cancer Center-Mesquite, provided Terrell with Tipper's name.

"You get close to cancer patients in a very short amount of time," Arnold recalls. "I realized that Teresa and her husband, Bruce, with the cancer and a little baby, hadn't had any time alone for a long, long time. I asked her if she would like a nice, romantic Valentine's weekend with Bruce. Her response was, 'Oh, Millie, someone is probably worse off than me.'"

The pieces came together quickly. Terrell's volunteers fanned out, hitting up local merchants for donations. A Garland Holiday Inn offered a free room for the weekend. Alfonso's restaurant in Dallas provided a candlelit dinner. A Mesquite salon gave Teresa a manicure and pedicure. "We bought her a little Dolly Parton wig and a sexy little teddy, and she loved it," Terrell says.

The week after her wish was granted, Teresa Tipper was hospitalized for the last time. She died two-and-a-half weeks later. Her husband, Bruce, is scrambling to run his own small trucking company and to raise their little girl. When he recalls his wife's final days, he remembers how happy she was for the short weekend getaway.

"It was something so simple, but so kind," he says. "I'll always be grateful."

When Terrell's own father was hospitalized with Hodgkin's disease at Baylor Medical Center 15 years ago, he shared a room with a young father suffering from the same form of cancer. The difference, Terrell says, was that her father survived the disease. The young man did not.

"My dad told me that in one of their conversations, this young guy told him if he ever got out of the hospital, he would love to take his wife to dinner and his kids to the circus one last time. My dad had my mom bring his wallet to the hospital, and he gave the man two $100 bills. 'Enjoy dinner and the circus,' he said.

"My dad had the money to do that, but not many people who are dying can afford those luxuries," Terrell says, seated at her kitchen table. "It stuck with me."

You could argue that the Terrells don't have the money for others, either. Nearly two years ago, Terrell quit her job as office manager for a small towing firm after a shoulder injury required extensive surgery. Her recuperation took six months. In the meantime, she says, her company went out of business. Her husband, Jimmy, is an elevator installer for U.S. Elevator. She has a 13-year-old son, Nicholas, from a previous marriage.

Terrell describes her husband of three years as "a big old Harley rider who's really just a big softie." His biker name is "J.T."--for Jimmy Terrell--and his own Harley sits beside his wife's in the garage, dismantled and under repair. Linda says he decided long ago to stand back and give her the time and space she needed to run her wish program. He declined to be interviewed for this story. "He can't stand to hear all these sad stories," she says. "If I tell him about these people, he gets all choked up. He really just can't handle it."

As a gas space heater glows in the corner of the living room, Terrell explains that their central heat went out a few weeks back, and it will cost $1,000 to replace it. Her home office--headquarters for Wishing on the Lone Star--needs new carpet and sheetrock. As she squeezes into the cluttered space, Terrell points out the "wall of stars," a display of four red-foil stars with the names of her wish recipients and the dates they received their wishes. "It won't be long before that whole wall will just be glowing with stars," she says longingly.

For a while, she says, she considered selling her prized Harley--painted bright blue and silver, and one of only 45 ever produced in honor of the Dallas Cowboys--and putting the proceeds into the organization. "I bought it in 1989. I bought it on time; I paid it off. It's all mine," Terrell says proudly. Terrell bought the bike for $16,000. It was recently appraised at $22,000. Her husband, she says, talked her out of selling it. "He was right," she says. "I'd miss it too much."

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