Our friend Jackie died last week at the age of 42 from breast cancer. I met Jackie the same night I met Kelly, the love of my life. After a Thai dinner, Kelly convinced me to join her and Jackie for ice cream, which I would soon learn was her favorite thing. Jackie’s warm friendly demeanor instantly put me at ease in a room full of strangers. Her close friendship with Kelly, born of countless racquetball games and movie nights and ice cream runs meant that Jackie would be a big part of my life as well and I couldn’t have been happier. She was a vibrant, upbeat woman who seemed to gather friends and admirers around her everywhere she went. Her memorial service was an uplifting testimony to her spirit and an emotionally wrenching time for her wide circle of family and friends to say goodbye.
While we waited for the service to begin, Kelly’s good friend Diane gave Kelly a gorgeous bracelet sold by the Friends of Mel Foundation to help raise money for cancer research. The multicolored beads and simple design make it the kind of jewelry you can wear with anything and I instantly coveted it. Our friend Michelle commented, “oh that’s the new breast cancer bracelet!” I learned that the Friends of Mel Foundation was started by friends of a woman who lost her cancer battle, and has since grown into a nationally known effort which has raised over $2 million for cancer research. Jackie’s own friends too have started a foundation in her memory, the Jackie Williamson Sisters of Hope, with the admirable goal of raising funds to help women, and in particular members of the lesbian community, who are facing the financial burden of dealing with critical or terminal illnesses. Yet another of Jackie’s closest friends has been training for her third 60-mile walk for the Susan G. Komen foundation to defeat breast cancer. Audrey started walking three years ago when Jackie was diagnosed, this year she sadly will be walking in her memory.
As we rode home from the cemetery I started thinking about all these lives cut short and all the ‘warriors’ left behind to fight the battle. My own losses to cancer are numerous and have been well chronicled on these pages before: my father to melanoma, my sister to multiple myeloma, my mother (and her mother) to breast cancer, my friend Dani to breast cancer, my friend Kim to a rare cancer of the bile duct, and now Jackie to breast cancer. In the early days of my time as a cancer warrior I too would cycle and walk, wear the ribbons, and the t-shirts. I too was like all those groups of friends running, riding or walking for someone whose face smiles bravely from their identical t-shirts. Sometimes they do it to “fight the fight” with them, and all too often to “keep their memory alive.” All these friends of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people living quietly remarkable lives all taken by variations on the same disease. These efforts provide a means to cope, to celebrate a life, to mourn a loss and to feel as though we have the power to make a difference, to be a warrior. When I started my own journey as one of these cancer warriors I had only my dad’s name to write on my “in memory of” ribbon…then I added Dani, my sister, my mom, Kim, and now Jackie. And while I haven’t tried to get my gargantuan body on a bike in a while I have thought of training to join Audrey or my friend Margaret in a marathon walk next year, because I know in my heart this battle can’t go on without me in the midst of it. And each year more and more warriors join this fight, walking, running, making bracelets, selling t-shirts, even skydiving like my fearless friend Audrey, all in an effort to try to stop the relentless march of this insidious disease. For every friend of Mel, of Jackie, of Dani, there are a thousand more each year who join the fight, wear the ribbons, sell the bracelets, plant “gardens of hope” and release balloons and sing songs in memory of their friends and raise sneakers and bike tires to honor the survivors. And you know what? I’m tired. We’re all tired. You can see it in the shell-shocked faces of those who have just experienced their first loss and in the hardened set faces of people like me who know this latest loss will be far from the last. This needs to stop. This battle should not have to be fought with dances and raffles and bake sales. This generation of warriors is ready to put down our weapons. We want to know our children won’t be fighting it a generation later. I want to know that Liza won’t be walking with her friends someday with my name on a ribbon or a t-shirt, making the same macabre jokes I make about coming from ‘the cancer family.” It’s time. It’s past time. Find the cures. End it now.
A year ago I wrote a piece “On Giving Thanks for a New Kind of Family” in which I reconciled my lack of ‘real’ family with the family I’ve created for my self – my friends who have embraced me literally and figuratively with a fierceness and a love that humbles and touches me. This year as I again faced a Thanksgiving day spent mostly alone – Kelly working and Liza with her dad and his family – I found myself slipping back into those patterns of self pity. Yet, anyone who knows me, knows the last thing I want to be is that person you see coming and think “great here she comes dragging her trail of dead family members behind her like some kind of badge.” Of course I’m not entirely lacking in family. I have a wonderful big brother, but his busy life as a criminal prosecutor and the comings and goings of his three active teenage boys make it hard for us to get together more than once a year if that. Kelly’s family has welcomed me into their midst with love and hospitality and I look forward to the day when they are all my in-laws. And yes, next year at this time Kelly and Liza and I will officially be a family of three, a prospect which excites me and fills those empty spaces in my heart. But that six-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years is full of reminders of my family holidays past and it is always a struggle for me to get through it in one piece .
A recent trend on Facebook has been to undertake a “thirty days of gratitude exercise” and today it seemed everyone’s post mentioned being grateful for FAMILY (all in caps naturally) and the cooking skills of uncles and moms and grandmothers, of baking pies with siblings and rousing games of flag football on frozen lawns. To read these posts one would think everyone lived in that “very special” Thanksgiving episode of General Hospital where the Quartermaines stop bickering and welcome the Webbers and the Spencers to their house for a lavish dinner and everyone wears turtleneck sweaters whilst sipping wine in front of crackling fires. Yet, here I sat in an empty house with the four cats for company watching a marathon of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race “on the LOGO network. (Frankly, I’m stunned I’m not inspiration for a Hallmark card with a holiday tradition like this. ) Yet, as I read post after post about large family gatherings and travels to distant places and family recipes handed down from generation to generation, I realized that my family has its own morbidly unique tradition: we all die at the holidays.
Now don’t blanche at that statement. It’s ok. Death is part of life after all, and really, what better time to pass away than when your family is already gathered together and the churches are bedecked with evergreens and twinkle lights? When you’ve driven to as many family funerals as I have in front of the backdrop of holiday decorations you develop a certain macabre sense of humor about it. It all started December 21, 1980 when my grandfather, who lived with us, had a massive heart attack in the back seat of my family station wagon and fell over and died on my 14-year old shoulder. “He died with someone he loved more than anything, “ my mom would often say to me. At the time I was traumatized but as the years went on, I realized I had the makings of one hell of a cocktail party story. Friends sent casseroles and deli trays to my family and for the next decade we made deli sandwiches on Christmas Eve as a nod to those days following his death, and our truncated celebration that year was the first time I’d spend the holidays wrapped in the cocoon of my family as we mourned the loss of someone close to us.
Ten years later my father would pass away on January 9th after an all-too quick battle with malignant melanoma and his funeral took place in the same family church with the same nativity scene in the corner and the same wreaths hung by red velvet ribbons along the walls. My father’s death is something I don’t speak of often. I was his baby girl and he was my hero. He taught me about Broadway musicals and crossword puzzles, how to read the New Yorker, the value of a good walking stick, and how to make the perfect bourbon and ginger for my mother. His dual Irish/Italian heritage meant he was prone to downing more than a few manhattans each night and then crying while listening to Pavarotti sing I Pagliacci. Losing him left a wound on my heart and a hole in my life that has never been filled and not a day goes by that I don’t wish he were here to see me and his granddaughter who looks and acts so much like I did at ten. For the next thirteen years we celebrated the holidays with out him, my mother alternating between Thanksgivings with my brother and Christmases with my sister, and always raising a toast to my dad on December 28th, their wedding anniversary.
Then in 2003 holiday death came calling for someone far, far too young. My 45- year old sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma right after Labor Day and died two days before Thanksgiving. Shell-shocked at this unexpected loss, my brother, mother and I journeyed to Maryland on Thanksgiving Day for the sad occasion of her funeral. I’ll never forget that long drive from the Baltimore airport to her home in Salisbury, tired, sad and hungry, we stopped at a convenience store for a Thanksgiving dinner of cracker sandwiches and peanuts. When I returned to New Hampshire the following Monday I was stunned to see the world ablaze with Christmas lights and decorations. Three weeks later we held a memorial service for Marie at our family church in Maine — same nativity scene, same wreaths, same deli sandwiches. By now we had the holiday funeral down pat.
With my sister’s death still raw my brother and I never anticipated that ten months later we would be faced with my mother’s stage four breast cancer diagnosis. Coming as it did in July of that year I remember sitting with her at her oncologist appointment thinking idly, “well we’ll have her for another five months,” so sure was I that she too would follow our family pattern of a diagnosis and quick death just in time for the holidays. I didn’t count on my mother’s tenacity. She fought back for the next three years, recovering from major invasive surgery, working through physical therapy, enjoying a brief remission, and several more trips out for lunch and dinner with her best friends, “the ABC ladies” who dined alphabetically through all of Greater Portland’s hot restaurants. But sure enough in December, 2007 during a holiday visit from me and Liza, and my brother and his youngest son, my mom’s condition turned suddenly, horrifically grave and she was rushed to the hospital. There we were once again in the family waiting room under the soft glow of Christmas lights with holiday muzak in the background. On January 3rd they told us there was no hope. On January 7th she died and her funeral at that same family church was full of what was by now the comforting and familiar presence of pointsettias and wise men and murmured words of condolences over deli sandwiches from the local Shaws. During those long sad final days by her bedside my brother and I would often smile wryly at each other and say “here we are again huh, planning a Christmas funeral.” There’s more I want to say about my mother but that loss is too new still too fresh and who she was deserves more than a pithy sentence at the end of this paragraph.
I share this not to elicit pity or sympathy. My losses are no more or no less tragic than anyone else’s and if anything, they’ve given me, the queen of self -deprecation, some great material. I share this as explanation for my obsession with gathering my loved ones to me during the holidays, for my insistence that the Christmas lights and decorations (including my impressive and often-mocked Santa Mug collection) come out the day after Thanksgiving, for my reluctance to be alone, for my need to hug Liza tighter than ever, for my love of Christmas carols on the cd player and endless viewings of the musical Scrooge, and for my tendency to tear up when Kelly holds me. You see, this magical time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s for me is as much about loss as it is about light and giving, as much about pain and sorrow as it is about laughter and pecan pie. But it has given me a fierce appreciation for the people in my life who mean so much to me – for Kelly and Liza who are my world, for my brother Patrick, my sister-in-law Marti and my nephews, for my best friends Joe, Katie, Meghan, Dana, Margaret, Susie, Tara, June, Vicki and Lisa and Debbie, for “my boys” Chris, Nathan, Jeff and Matt, my new gal pals Deb and Jenn, and for my amazing cyber pals from Mothertalkers, Banshees and May 99 moms. During this time I may write you a little more, I may hug you a little harder or reach for your hand more often, I may call a little too much. Or I may get quiet and pull back when I fear my neediness is becoming intrusive. Bear with me. You mean the world to me and when you’ve already lost your world three times over you want to hold on to what is left. To say I am thankful for you would be inadequate. To say I appreciate you would be trite. To say I love you would be the truth — imperfect as it may be. Happy Holidays to you… my family.
That I knew how to tap dance
That I understood the appeal of hiking
That I was a better writer
That the Carol Burnett Show was still on the air
That Liza still held my hand when we walk on the beach
That I liked yogurt
That I could take a walk with my father one more time
That the day after the Oscars was a nationally sanctioned day of rest
That there was a sports team, any sports team, I was remotely interested in.
That I was more effective at my job
That I trusted my ability to sing
That I didn’t hyperventilate when it was time for costume measurements
That I trusted my friends not to care about my costume measurements.
That money didn’t worry me so
That I could pick up Liza every day at 2:10 like other moms
That I liked to cook
That I was better at confronting people who have hurt me
That peak foliage would last two months and winter only one
That I had found the courage to come out to my mother
That I had something more creative to write about
That I didn’t worry what the other moms at Liza’s school think of me.
That I was kinder in word and deed
That I knew what the cat found so fascinating under the living room chair
That I took the time to go explore the woods behind my house
That I was more serious of purpose
That I had Kelly’s wit
That I didn’t fall so in love with the character I’m playing. The goodbye will hurt.
That I had realized how loud that cool new clock in the living room would be.
That I could call my sister and tell her I was sorry for being such a bratty kid.
That I had a sense of style
That I could spend a long morning over coffee with my college roomie.
That I wasn’t so chicken
That my oldest nephew would realize how much his family loves him
That I could motivate myself to exercise.
That I hadn’t hurt my ex husband so deeply
That I didn’t love reality tv so much
That my brother lived closer
That I cared about statistics and surveys and studies
That I had been a better mom to Liza in her early years.
That I had the guts to tell my friend to get the help she needs before she dies.
That typing that sentence didn’t make me cry.
That I could live with the mistakes of my past.
That Dani was here to tell me we all have pasts and we all live with them.
That Kelly could really know how madly passionately desperately I love her.
That I didn’t have to stop writing this and go to work.
That we could have a national discourse without screaming at each other.
That the fact that I want to marry Kelly would be a non issue to everyone.
That I wasn’t such a sap and didn’t cry every time Liza goes on stage
That for today I can make at least one person laugh out loud.
That I will find one friend I haven’t seen in a long time and tell them I love them.
What are your wishes?