Sallie Morton has been known for years as the “Party Girl” at California’s The Terraces of Los Gatos retirement community, and she uses any excuse to uncork the celebratory champagne.
This girl can dance.
She’s still living large and loving life, trying her best to ignore the mesothelioma diagnosis that would have devastated others long before.
“I just don’t spend a lot of time worrying about my health,” Morton recently told Asbestos.com. “I’ve already had as great a life as anyone I could possibly imagine. If I went tomorrow, that would be fine. I’ve had a great ride. And I’m still enjoying it.”
Morton, 90, has conceded nothing.
She broke her collarbone six months ago because she was moving too fast and fell, which slowed her temporarily. A mild stroke three months later dimmed her memory and delayed her once-quick wit.
Doctors diagnosed Morton with malignant pleural mesothelioma almost three years ago, sending her to hospice with a typically grim prognosis. She left abruptly because she didn’t like the feel of where it was headed.
“The whole time I was in the hospital, I kept thinking I have to get out of here and home to my computer so I can finish my obit I wanted to write,” she said. “And since then, I’ve surprised a lot of people.”
Morton has a standing reservation for the party room every Nov. 9 at her northern California retirement community. She’s comfortable knowing it will be used for her next birthday party or a memorial service dedicated to her life there.
“She’s one gutsy broad,” is how a good friend once described her, making Sallie laugh each time she tells the story.
She has traveled the world throughout her life — hitting all 50 states — surpassing 100,000 miles at the wheel of a post-retirement motor home. She sold it when she moved to The Terraces, but that barely slowed her. She talks glowingly of past travels up and down the California coastline.
Just recently, she finished a two-week computer class held at a not-so-nearby community college. She wanted to learn more about the latest Windows 10 updates and her new iPad. She doesn’t drive as fast as she once did but still drives comfortably in traffic.
“The stroke really slowed me down. I do know that upstairs [in my head], I’m not as sharp as I once was. There are foggy days,” Morton said. “But when I hear my friends say their family doesn’t want them driving anymore, I just laugh. It will be a cold day in hell when my son tells me to quit driving.”
Surgery was never an option for her. The mesothelioma was too far along. She declined the chemotherapy and radiation that was offered, already seeing too many friends spend their final days fighting off the side effects of the toxic chemicals.
“The thought of spending the days I have left running between doctors and hospitals just didn’t appeal to me. I’ve seen what chemo can do. If I would have been 20 years younger, then yes, I would have tried it but not at my age,” she said. “It was too late. What’s going to happen is going to happen. I’ve just tried to ignore it and keep on moving as best I can with a positive attitude.”
The cheerful, positive attitude has been crucial to her longer-than-expected survival. She was fortunate to develop it throughout a lifetime of smiles that included one son and his wife, two grandchildren, two great grandchildren and a long-gone husband.
Morton spent much of her working years in the jewelry business, becoming a certified gemologist. She owned her own jewelry store, which allowed her to mix long-distance business travel with sights she wanted to see.
“Being in the jewelry business is one reason I’ve always had a positive outlook. I’ve always dealt with happy people. You don’t see sad people in a jewelry store. They are always happy,” she said. “My grandfather was a pharmacist, and he used to say he always saw sick, unhappy people. Jewelry was just the opposite. I’ve been fortunate to deal with really neat people all my life. I’ve been so lucky.”
Morton does a water aerobics class three mornings a week now with other retirees at the nearby community pool. They eat many of their meals in the nearby dining room. She discourages talking about aches, pains and serious health issues.
“Everybody here has some kind of problem. I was just at a table of four, and three of us there were over 90,” she said. “There is always somebody around here worse off than you, so why talk about it? I’d rather change the subject like, ‘What about the upcoming organ recital.’”
Morton was the catalyst behind the community’s recent “Walker Celebration,” where everyone with a walker — and there are plenty — was given a customized, professionally designed name tag. She participates in the monthly Red Hat Society, where everyone also dresses in purple outfits. They laugh a lot.
She organizes a party twice a year involving her favorite Dixieland band. And she’s usually the first one to get up and dance — walker included. It’s the same band she has scheduled for her birthday every year.
Morton always makes sure the musicians are also fed with her famous caviar dip. It’s a staple at every gathering she holds.
“I’ve always liked to celebrate things, maybe that’s from the jewelry business,” she said. “I guess I’m known around here for throwing parties. I’m always telling people, ‘This calls for a party.’ Let’s start planning the next one.”