Happy Birthday Ann

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.


14 Comments on “Happy Birthday Ann”

  1. janel10 says:

    My son’s best friend’s mother is now dying from cancer, I feel so helpless. He is now living with us as he has no one else. It’s so sad for everyone. It’s so very hard to see her and remember her the way she was. All I can do for her is take care of her son, which I will do although he’s 18, everyone at least needs a couch to sleep on and food to eat.
    Thanks Karen.

    • Karen Baglin says:

      Hi Janel,
      I’m very sorry to hear about your son’s friend’s mom. It’s very hard. Luckily for all of the teens I’ve known, they’ve still had family to lean on: my niece & nephew had my brother; my college roommate’s kids had her. My friend Ann’s kids are now with her brother & his wife. What amazed me about her is that she planned ahead for them financially, including college, while she was handling everything else. For the young man who is staying with you, hopefully he’s graduated HS and can look into financial aid to go to college. We all have to move forward, no matter what.
      God Bless You for helping him! Sending you good energy & blessings.

  2. Angela Ashe says:

    Karen, that was simply beautiful. I don’t have the gift for words that you have but I can tell you that every time you tell that story, or someone reads it, you have made Ann’s time on this earth a little more significant, a little more lasting. Like we were saying earlier today, we as human beings just want to be heard. Well, we want to be remembered, too. It is all that we can give to those whom we have loved and lost. You have been and continue to be Ann’s friend. I’m so sorry for all that you have had to endure and I feel very lucky to call you my friend. Be well.

  3. Lene says:

    It would be so nice to have Ann’s kids see this……. I think I told you, there was a birthday greeting in the D&C sending love and thoughts.

  4. A beautiful tribute to Ann. A painfully accurate story about breast cancer in young woman. I’ve passed this on to my posse of girls.
    Feeling your pain, and sending xoxo
    Debbie, Founder & Director of The Pink Daisy Project

  5. Hi Karen, someone posted a link to this page on a page I belong to for young women with breast cancer. I just wanted to let you know how meaningful this was for me as I am getting through treatment. I have 4 little kids, all 7 and under and I think often of the legacy that I want to leave them if I should lose this battle. I have been thinking to start writing them letters to read when they are older. God willing, I will be around for a lot longer, but if not, then they might have something to remember me by. Already I think that they can’t remember a time when mom wasn’t too tired to play. I hope that my family and friends reflect that I am a woman of grace through this process.

    • Karen Baglin says:

      Hi Stephanie,
      I can tell you are a woman of grace by your comment! Please fight the good fight for yourself and your four kids. Writing letters is great as is taking pictures with them now. Please envision a future where you are healthy and so are your kids and you all are happy together.
      Godspeed ~

  6. Melissa says:

    “It was like she was there saying, “Tell her! Tell her!””

    If I wasn’t already bawling, this line did me in!

    One of the first people I told when I was diagnosed in 2006 was my cousin. She had breast cancer in 1993 at the ripe age of 32. I was stage 1 and was told that chemo was a gray area, I could reject it or could be more cautious and do it. My oncologist said if I were his sister, he would say do it. But, I was still undecided. Three things changed my mind.

    1. An article published the very week I was diagnosed about an increased survival rate in stage 1 women just like me (premenopausal, similar tumor characteristics).
    2. The fact that when I tell patients “if you were my sister, I’d say…” means I don’t want to tell them what to do, but I am telling them what to do.
    3. My cousin said that she firmly believes that if her mom, my aunt, had been given chemo at the get-go instead of when the cancer returned, she’d be here for us today.

    You and Ann may have saved a life that night. You both also reminded me how lucky I am, thanks to aggressive treatment, that I am here to argue, nudge, nag, and most of all, love my own 14 yr old daughter.

    • Karen Baglin says:

      Hi Melissa,
      Your comment made *me* cry! I’ve known too many women who’ve died from this besides Ann, including my sister-in-law.
      I’m so happy that you’re healthy and able to love your baby girl!

  7. Penny Gantt says:

    I love this and forward to people when I find out that they are dealing with a family member or friend that is diagnosed with cancer. I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 33 and had a bilateral mastectomy. They didn’t think mine had spread, but I still had chemotherapy. I’m a 3 1/2 year survivor now. I’m so sorry about your friend.

    • Karen Baglin says:

      Hi Penny,
      I’m very happy my post to honor Ann helps people! Also really happy to hear that you’ve survived and moved forward … it’s people like you who give those fighting the fight hope. And hope is one of the best gifts we can give each other!
      Stay healthy & happy:)

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