As told to Joshua Maloni
"I'm 73 - and I brag about it," Dotty Gara says. "I was supposed to die when I was 40."
In fact, Gara, a Lewiston resident since 2000, could've died a few times since she crossed life's proverbial hill. Instead, she became a survivor - and in inspiration for others who are fighting sickness or disease.
Here is Dotty's story:
"When I was 10 years old, I met my husband at a birthday party, and I never dated anyone else," she says of her deceased husband, Frank. Ten years later, the two were wed - on May 10, 1958, which was Dotty's birthday.
On March 6, 1959, Dotty and Frank gave birth to a son, Dominick. Arriving three months early, Dominick weighed less than 3 pounds and had to remain at Mount St. Mary's Hospital for two months.
The Garas lived a quiet life in Niagara Falls for the next 20 years. But in 1980, Dotty experienced the first of what would become a string of major health problems. Remarkably, each occurrence was paired with something wonderful.
"I had lung cancer when I was 40," Dotty says. "I was told I had at the most a year, year and a half to live. It was stage 4. So, they operated; they took the (right) lung out. And I had chemo and I had radiation. And I said to my husband, 'You know what? You're not going to want to stay in this house when I die.' I said, 'I want to sell it, and I want to travel.' He said, 'Why? Where do you want to go?' I said, 'I want to go to Sicily, to see where my dad was born.' 'I'll never go there,' he said. I says, 'OK.'
"So we sold the house, moved into an apartment. I went back to work so I didn't have to use any of the little bit that we cleared on the house. While I was selling my house, a lady from across the street came over. She said, 'Can I ask you why you're selling?' I didn't tell her anything about my health. I said, 'Oh, I just want to travel.' 'Oh,' she says, 'you and your husband?' I said, 'No, he won't go where I want to go.' She said, 'Why? Where do you want to go?' I said, 'Sicily. I've been dying to go there!' From that day on, her and I, we did a lot of traveling together.
"We went over to Italy. We got down to get the boat to go over to Sicily. (The Italians) went on strike. So I never got there. It's been on my bucket list.
"So (I) came back, and I had more chemo. And then I said to her, 'You know, I'm a golfer. I would love to see St. Andrew's.' She said, 'Where's that?' I said, 'Scotland.' (She said,) 'Oh, that's right next door to Ireland. That's where my people are from.' So we did Scotland and Ireland. (1981)
"And while I was on the tour bus, a gentleman came up to me. He said, 'I hear you're a golfer.' I said, 'Well, my definition of a golfer is probably a lot different than yours.' He said, 'Well, what is it?' I said, 'When the ball goes where I don't like it, I pick it up and put it where I want it.' He said, 'Ooh, that'll work. Be ready tomorrow at 7:30, we have a tee time at St. Andrew's.'
"I golfed St. Andrew's. I couldn't believe it. (I) came back, and then they told me that the cancer had spread to the shoulder. So, I had to have part of the shoulder removed, and went under chemo and cobalt again." (1983)
Dotty also had a tumor on her thyroid, and could've lost her voice. So, she took sign language classes.
"I lost my job because of all this going on - the health problems," she says. "So, I said, 'I'll go to (Niagara County) Community College and take some classes.' (1984)
"So I went back to school, and then in January I said to (Frank), 'You know, I don't think I'm going to die. We better find another house.' So we did. We moved back to the City of Niagara Falls. And in June, I had brain surgery with a stroke on my right side. (1985)
"I said, 'Oh my god.' I says, 'I've got to be able to drive to go to school; it's my last semester.' And Dr. Yu did the surgery. He said, 'No, no, no. You no drive; no drive.' Well I did. I drove and I graduated. And I started working with the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. And I became the tourism and sales manager there."
Having survived the premature birth of their son, and Dotty's illnesses, the Garas were seemingly in the clear.
"Well then, 1996, November, I came home from work," Dotty continues. "I went in the house. There was a note on the cupboard. It was from my husband. He says, 'I'm real sorry that I've done this.' And I thought, 'What's he talking about?' And I went in the basement, I went upstairs - I looked all over for him."
She called Frank's brother to see if he was with him.
"I said, 'He left me a note. He's always joking around.' He said, 'Dotty, go look in the garage.' I said, 'No, I park in the garage. He never parks there.' He says, 'Go look in the garage.' Well, I went in, and there he was," Dotty recalls.
Her husband, whom she says had more than $200,000 in gambling debts, had committed suicide. Dotty was left with $85, and a hole in her life.
"So I stayed in that house about three years," she says. "And I wasn't eating in the kitchen because the garage was right next door to the kitchen. I wasn't sleeping up in the bed. I said, 'You know, this was the first beautiful house we ever owned. It's a shame it's going to waste. Let someone else enjoy it.' So I sold it, and I moved into an apartment down here in Lewiston, because I did golf and my friends were down here. And I stayed in there about eight months, and I said, 'Oh my god, I can't afford this. The little bit that I cleared from selling the house, I'll use it up in two years.'
"So I started looking for a house. And I found this one I'm in right now, on Ridge Street. It was empty for nine years. And come to find out, the girl that owned it, her and her husband were good friends of mine and my husband, and they knew what had happened to me and everything."
Dotty says she received a great price on the house. With the help of friends and family, she quickly made it her home.
"My husband was real well loved; he was a good guy - good personality," Dotty says. "And people that knew him, and were in any kind of construction, they came to me. And the guy that did roofing, he said, 'Dotty, you need a new roof. When you can, just pay me for the shingles.' And my nephew came and did the plumbing; he put a new bathroom upstairs, a new furnace, air conditioning. Everybody just took real good care of me.
"It's been a house of love."
It's also become a place for Dotty to showcase her gardening skills (which she developed when she was unsure if she could continue her artwork).
"For me, for therapy, I started planting flowers. I started gardening," Dotty says.
She replaced weeds, put in a path, and planted all sorts of flowers and vegetables.
The big tree in Dotty's yard is a wisteria tree. When it bloomed in her first spring as the homeowner, "I said, 'God, thank you, you're sending me a message everything is going to be OK.' And God has taken care of me right along," Dotty says.
Her garden has become a well-known landmark in Lewiston, and the subject of garden tour walks.
Today, Dotty works at DiCamillo Bakery, with psychotherapist Dr. Michael Caballero, as a tour guide for Mirage Tours, and alongside medical students participating in a cancer awareness volunteer group at the University at Buffalo.
"That's my story," Dotty says. "If it helps anybody, then I'm glad all this happened to me."
Throughout her many ordeals, Dotty never lost her sense of humor. When her hair grew in dark after brain surgery, she joked about going under the knife.
"I tell my girlfriends I highly recommend brain surgery," Dotty says.
She never gave up on life because, as she says, "I guess it's just me and I'm stubborn!"
"I always feel that there's something more; that (God's) got something more for me - something good," Dotty says.
"You do what you gotta do," she says. "What are you going to do? It wouldn't have done me any good (to quit). ... Sure I was frightened. I was angry. I had all those emotions. But I had to put them to work for me. That was it.
"Negative things, yes they do happen, but I believe they happen for a reason: for you to use whatever you have to turn them into positives. I firmly believe that."
Dotty decorates her house for the holidays and even creates the occasional greeting card. Of course, she remains active in her garden year-round.
"People come by all the time telling me how beautiful it is, and how good they feel," Dotty says. "I say, 'Well, your compliment just made all my hard work worth it.' "
When asked what message she would like to share with others, Dotty simply says, "Life is precious.
"None of us know how long we have. Therefore, I feel we should try not to waste a minute. To do something that either makes us feel good (or) someone else feel good. But don't waste a minute. Life is too precious."