Happy Birthday AnnPosted: May 28, 2011
I sang “Happy Birthday” to my friend Ann this morning while standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes. She would be 48 today, but she died February 22nd from metastatic breast cancer. I sang, prayed for her soul, and talked to her about her parents and kids.
Ann and I met in our twenties while working for Xerox. Like many twenty-somethings, we partied, played on the work softball team, did the Christmas work parties as a group, went out for New Year’s Eve, etc. She was the oldest of four children, smart, and always well-coiffed; hair, make-up and dress always perfect, in concert with her apple red nails. I did her wedding make-up for her as a dry run. She loved how I did her eye make-up and wore it like that on her wedding day. I remember being at her wedding in my red sheath dress, with one long strand of pearls, dancing the night away with her brother, whom I briefly dated after that.
I went home the first Christmas after Xerox relocated me to Seattle and visited Ann & her husband. She was pregnant with her first baby; a petite woman of about 5’3″ and 110 lbs, she had one of those basketball pregnancies. In her early thirties, she looked young, happy and healthy. Her son was born in March 1995 and her daughter in 1997. For the ten years I was out on the West Coast, Ann was one of the people I made time to see when I came home to visit twice a year.
I vividly remember her phone call in August 2000 telling me she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a rough time; my brother-in-law, who had been a father figure, had just died in June from brain cancer. I was still grieving, and angry when I heard her news. Her mom was diagnosed about ten years before and I said, “Ann, just have a lumpectomy & radiation like your mom did. She’s been fine for ten years.” She said, “Well, they’re saying since Mom did, and now I do, that I need to have a radical mastectomy. But I’m going to do reconstruction.” I asked her to get a second opinion and check out the survival rates of lumpectomies; they’re as good as mastectomies. My college roommate’s mom had one, as well as Ann’s mom, and they both went decades without issue.
Ann had her mastectomy in 2000 and afterwards the doctors declared her “clean” and didn’t do any chemo or radiation. By 2002, she had to have her hip replaced due to bone cancer, which made one leg shorter than the other. I went home for a couple of weeks that summer and took Ann to one of her chemotherapy treatments. It’s eye-opening to sit with someone in a room full of people while they all have chemo IV drips in their arms and listen to their conversations. When I moved back home at the end of 2003, it had reached her brain, and she had just had brain surgery. From breast to bone to brain in three years. Her kids were 8 and 6 then.
I moved back to Rochester in November 2003 after eight months in Florida where I’d been helping my brother whose wife died from metastatic breast cancer that August. I’d already seen what it does to a woman, her self-image, a marriage, and a family. To say it sucks is a complete and total understatement. It takes a very strong man to watch his wife wither away from this disease and its treatments. My complete respect and admiration for those who do. In Ann’s case, her husband had a hard time coping; they eventually divorced.
Ann would talk to me about the chemo she was on, her reactions, etc. Chemotherapy is as bad, if not worse than, cancer. There was the chemo that made her eyes weep forever after. She must have received at least ten different drugs since 2003; she was always on chemo after that. The very last one turned her voice into a squeak. When she would talk about her side effects, it was upsetting; it was like adding insult to injury. She, however, just accepted it. Once she told me about her oncologist moving away and said, “Do you know what he said to me? He said, ‘Ann, of all the patients I’ve ever had, you handle your cancer with the most grace.'” At the time, it seemed like a strange thing to say.
I moved back to Florida at the end of 2009. I went to see Ann when I visited home last summer. She was still getting around and we went out for Chinese with her soon to be 13 yr old daughter and her friend. At one point her daughter said, “That’s because you’re weird, Mom!” I looked at her daughter, three blinks away from childhood, and instantly realized that she could not identify in the least with her mother who’d been sick since she could remember. Four surgeries and all the chemo and radiation had taken their toll; she needed a walker to walk and had aged beyond her years. I was upset and sad at the same time. Upset for what the illness had done to my friend; sad because I’d be hurt if my daughter felt that way about me. In as soft, even, and polite a voice as I could muster, I began describing what her mother was like in her twenties; when she got married; when she had babies. True to being 12, what made her eyes fly open and look at her mother was the red nail polish. Ann thanked me later. I asked her to get old photos together and sit down with the kids and talk to them about who she was before the cancer.
At Christmas I went home to be with family and to see Ann one last time. She had called in November to say that her Dr said there was nothing more to do. She was living in bed with visiting nurses and pain patches, etc. I brought her some chocolates and we sat there talking and eating candy. The kids, like all teenagers, were way more interested in being with their friends than their sick mom. I felt her loneliness. She told me she had gotten the photos together but hadn’t shown them to the kids yet. We both cried when I left; knowing it was the last time we would see each other.
I called Ann February 12th; she was tired. I repeated how proud she should be; how strong and brave she was fighting the cancer, raising the kids, handling the house and the plans she’d already made for them afterwards. It amazed me and always put my life into perspective. After a bit, she said, “No more words, Karen.” That’s like telling me to stop breathing. Finally I said, “I love you Ann.” She said, “I love you too.” Then we hung up. Most would have known it was our last conversation, but I was convinced she would live to see her son turn 16 in early March.
I attended Social Fresh Tampa February 21 & 22nd (loved it) and another social networking workshop on 2/23. When I got home, there was a vmail from a 585 number that sounded like Ann’s cell; thought she’d called. It was her 70+-year-old mom calling to say she’d passed the evening before. I was shocked. And then shocked I was shocked. Here’s one reason why: the night before, someone said, “Come have a drink with us.” So I’d gone to the restroom to freshen up and there were two women in there. I complimented them on their hair and asked where they got it done. They were there for an Internet marketing meeting for skin care products and wanted me to join. I said, “Just finished up a two-day conference; getting ready to have a drink.” One of the women mentioned she was recovering from breast cancer, but she had a full head of hair. I asked, “You’ve done your chemo & radiation and your hair’s grown back already?” She replied, “No, all my markers came back clean, so I’m done.” I barely knew this woman’s name; I hesitated and then said, “Look, I have a friend who’s in the process of dying right now because they removed her breast and then did nothing for her. Within two years she had bone cancer. Please get a second opinion.” The woman was taken back by my intensity and even I was surprised that I went there with her so directly, but I knew it was because of Ann. To find out my friend had passed an hour before this conversation gave me the chills. It was like she was there saying, “Tell her! Tell her!”
This is my post for Ann, my tribute by telling her story. I’ve purposely omitted her kids’ and family names. She lived through much more than is written here. My BFF said yesterday, “It was her sheer will to mother her kids and get them raised enough that allowed her to last as long as she did.” She’s one of the bravest and strongest women I’ve ever met. I always told her that when we talked. Recently she said, “Karen, I’ve had a lot of family support, friends and neighbors help, as you know. I couldn’t have done it without them. Anyway, you’re strong too; I never could have moved to Seattle or around like you have.” Ann, your strength and grace amaze me. RIP ❤
Here’s what I know for sure about cancer, death, and grieving:
1. Cancer sucks. If you know anyone struggling with it, please give them whatever support you can.
2. Known way too many people who’ve died from cancer, but Ann is my first peer; everyone else was older.
3. You never think when you become friends with someone in your twenties that one of you could die in your forties.
4. Dying from cancer is a slow, painful process; for the person and everyone who loves them.
5. Grief is a very personal process. Everyone handles it differently. I’m a word person; have loved books since I was a kid and have always written. So books work for me. They don’t work for everyone.
6. Forgive anything anyone says (or does) to you when they’re grieving. It’s a volatile combination of grief, love, rage, and shock; that experience truly is ‘Rolling in the Deep.’
7. When young people lose a parent, it changes them, and their lives forever. Be extra sensitive around major events like graduations, weddings, the birth of babies, etc. They are always aware of their absence. I once said, “Your mom would be so proud of you” at a wedding and quickly learned from the reply that it was not the right thing to say or the least bit comforting.
8. It’s true there’s nothing you can say to ease someone’s grief; you can only listen.
9. Parents never want to lose a child whether they’re 2 days, 2 yrs, 10 yrs, 18 yrs, 25 yrs or 47 yrs old. A parent never wants to bury their child.
10. I hope someday Ann’s daughter, who will turn 14 in August, will know who she really was. I’m going to read Katie Rosman’s book “If You Knew Suzy …” but they were both older when her mom died. My hope is in her own way Ann’s daughter will come to see the real beauty of her mom.
11. Some people with cancer are reticent to create mementos for their kids. With Facebook, YouTube, and the digital technology available, anything where kids can see and hear you (particularly when you’re still relatively healthy) is so important and meaningful. Randy Pausch’s kids will always know who he was.
12. Hope and grace are required in both living and dying. Those I’ve known with cancer have shown how you can get through almost anything in the name of love; love for a spouse, a child, a family member, etc.
13. Life isn’t fair. You can do everything to stay healthy and still get sick. You can work hard for years and still get let go. You can put your all into a relationship and it can still end. But like the Japanese after the tsunami or the MO woman who lived through the tornado while clutching her husband in a closet, when it’s over you have to wade through the wreckage with all the strength and grace God provides and move forward with hope.