Last Friday, July 15, would have been the 94th birthday of one of my dearest dead loved ones.
I knew this as I sat in a big chair in the Kaiser chemo suite with my friend Judy Parke, who was sleeping on a gurney as her infusion of Herceptin flowed into the port in her upper right chest. I often tell Judy that she’s the poster girl for metastasized breast cancer, particularly every three weeks when we spend time in the chemo suite. I go with her to the infusions as often as I can. It’s a good opportunity to visit. She talks, and I scribe, writing down what’s been going on for her in her journal.
Last Friday, I watched Judy sleep since afternoons are her nap time. Usually her infusions are in the mornings. Robert, the rare male chemo nurse, turned off the lights in the cubicle, brought Judy two blankets, and she curled up and drifted off, her bright orange hair peeking out from the white blanket covering most of her. I wrote in her journal about the latest news: a new lesion in her brain, a trip to the ER that didn’t go well. She’s been doing this dance for four years—the cancer had spread to her liver and bones—and yet she’s still here after a mastectomy and a combination of Western medicine and alternative treatments. A walking miracle.
That’s when I thought about my friend Julie, another woman I’d known with carrot-colored hair and cancer. How appropriate that I was spending part of Julie’s birthday in a chemo suite with another friend battling cancer. She would have said, “Honey, there are no accidents.”
They didn’t know each other, but Julie and Judy have more in common than their hair color and me. They have both fought the good fight against a powerful disease. And when I think about what has sustained these women, it comes to two things: faith and perseverance. Each has had an unwavering belief in God. Each has been fearless about pursuing treatments that took harsh tolls on her body. Each has resolved to live as long as possible.
During the last six months of Julie’s life, I spent one or two afternoons each week in her home, giving her son Bobby a bit of respite from his caretaking duties. I was happy to be there, soaking up as much time as I could with a woman who was like a second mother to me. I remember wondering aloud if I was practicing for cancer later in my own life.
“Oh, honey, no,” Julie said. “This isn’t your disease. But you’re going to be around it a lot.”
I didn’t question that statement. Julie believe many things, stated them as unequivocal fact. I was never quite sure what to think. Toward the end of her life, as she was caught in that hazy, morphined place between this world and the next, she was touching my hair and whispering, “pretty.” Then she looked into my eyes with her piercing blue ones and said, “Honey, you’re an angel.”
When modesty pushed protests from my lips, she shook her head. “It’s not a compliment,” she said. “It’s a job description.”
Julie died in 1998 after her long battle with rectal cancer. She half-joked that the cancer resulted from trying to poop out two ex-husbands. Julie was a holistic health nurse—in fact, she was one of my mother’s first holistic health teachers in the 1970s at UC Davis. She worked for an M.D. named Carl Simonton who had people with cancer practicing meditation and visualization to help them heal. A good number of patients did, solidifying Julie’s belief that mind, body and spirit work together to produce miracles.
To me, Judy is one of those miracles—still here, fighting the good fight, using every means she can find… including more than one angel. I am honored to be one of them.