Tomorrow, the first day of March, is the birthday of several people I know and love; it's also the day one of my very best friends passed away, Sue Allen. I'd like to tell you a little bit about Sue today, so if you read this entry tomorrow or sometime during the coming week, you can know exactly who this amazing person was, and still is...to me, and all those who love her.
Sue died of brain metastases after struggling with recurring ovarian cancer the last four years of her life. On one of her final days on the planet, she awoke to a terrible searing headache and temporary blindness. She had been on maintenance chemotherapy from 2007 to March 2009 after two years of what can only be classified as torture--in and out of the hospital, multiple surgeries, horrendous side-effects from the "treatments" she received for her original disease--truly torturous. During those two years, Sue almost died twice. And yet, by 2007, she was on her way to recovery, despite the continuation of cancerous tumors on her liver and lungs. That may not make sense to you if you've been lucky enough to not have had much experience with cancer. Sue's ovaries had been removed almost eight years prior to her second diagnosis of ovarian cancer in March 2005. That's part of the standard treatment, along with chemotherapy and radiation. So you may wonder how ovarian cancer-tumors managed to return to Sue's body even without ovaries being present.
The way cancer works is more systemic--meaning system-wide. If localized to a specific area and when that area is removed, cancer cells are not totally gone. Once cancer cells develop in the trunk, chest, abdomen, bones, or extremities, the cells themselves can remain, even if the tumor is removed, even if the organ of origin is removed, like Sue's ovaries. That's part of the myth of breast cancer treatment many women are speaking out against: Mastectomies. Lopping off your breasts won't guarantee a systemic cancer, like breast cancer, will not return...because ALL cancers return--it's implied in the very definition. Scary as hell, I know, I've had two malignant brain tumors and Melanoma. But when you're scared, and you're looking death in the eye every day, you become desperate and will often do things that feel counterintuitive simply because a medical doctor tells you if you do it, there's hope.
I spoke about the power of hope in a recent entry. And yes, the power is so great, you WILL choose to take out your own organs if it means you can grasp at it. Even if for a little while.
When Sue woke up on February 27th to that searing headache and blindness, she went in to the hospital to get tests. She knew something was happening, but probably had no idea that the cancer cells had made their way to her brain and were putting tremendous pressure on her skull and ocular functions. When Sue did learn the truth of her situation, she did not curl up in a corner and wait for death. No, not my Sue.
When Sue got the incredulously BAD news, she strapped on her warrior breast-plate and insisted on starting radiation immediately. You keeping up here? Imagine you've suffered unimaginable torment for YEARS, now you learn there's something new growing in your brain. You flinch, right? At least, think about it--maybe wimper a little. Sue was tough as nails, but you'd never have guessed that from looking at her.
Not more than 5'3" or so and super-petite; strawberry-blonde coils danced all over her head framing her befreckled face, and those smiling blue-green eyes the Irish are always singing about--that was Sue. Her laugh was like the tinkling of silvery bells. She was...well, angelic. She was also a loyal friend, a loving mother, a dedicated wife, a generous sister, aunt, and beloved daughter. Sue chose nursing as her career so she could help comfort people in pain. She was excellent at math and science and had the aptitude to become a doctor, but became a nurse because she could "help more people directly."
She helped me before I even met her. It's true:
In 2001, I was laying in a rehab hospital, paralyzed. I needed to get better before continuing my "treatments" for my second malignant brain tumor. I had miles to go before I could even envision light at the end of my long, dark tunnel. And then I met Amy.
Amy was my physical therapist at the rehab hospital. Amy was also Sue's identical twin. As I struggled to learn to take my first steps for the second time in my life, Amy would inspire to keep going by telling me stories about her sister, Sue, who had beaten cancer after surgery and a long eighteen-month stint of chemotherapy that left her unable to walk. That was three years earlier in 1998. By September 2001, when I first met Amy, Sue was healthy, walking, and living a full life again. Hearing about Sue's struggle and triumph despite her difficulties fueled my imagination: Maybe I, too, could beat this horror to a proverbial pulp and live once again.
It wasn't more than a few days later that I took my very first steps. I began to weep. I knew that those steps were the beginning of my journey forward. Sue helped give me the HOPE I needed to take those steps. About a year later, I got to meet the legendary Sue in person.
From that moment forward, we were soul-sisters. A year ago, I lost her. It was crushing, like someone kicked in my chest and broke a few ribs--I felt like I could barely breathe. As bad as it was for me, it was ten times worse for Amy. And of course, the tragic loss extended to Sue's husband and daughter, other siblings, parents, family, patients-past, and friends.
Not a single day passes without my thinking of Sue, and so many other friends I've lost to my (literal) mortal enemy, cancer. Sue's death would be followed by seven others in 2009, ending with my beloved paternal grandmother who now frequently visits me in my dreams. Tonight, I learned that my maternal grandmother lies in a hospital bed, also dying. There is a saying about death coming in threes, and that will be accurate I fear very soon. Three sets of three in my case.
Each life that has left is not gone. For each person did not just affect me, but countless other lives, influencing countless more--the effect of a life well-lived is inifinite. And though nine deaths within one year is rather unprecedented with the exception of a natural disaster or war, I find myself contemplating how to take what each of those lives gave me, and pass on those gifts to others. It's the best way to honor people like my Sue. Sue gave so much of herself; her patience was eternal--her generosity grander than our expanding universe. If I can even take on half of Sue's patience and generosity, help half the number of people she did, I will be a better person, and better other persons' lives as well. No death should be meaningless. No death really is. And though death is part of the cycle of life, we tend to feel its finality too strongly sometimes. We cannot reach out and hug the people we loved and lost, but the physical isn't necessary for us to still be touched by them, OR for us to use what we learned to make a positive difference in the lives of others--therefore, carrying on the good works of the people we physically lost.
Death used to scare me. And still does to some degree, mainly because I love life so much. It's hard to imagine not being able to physically connect with the people I love. Can you? That's why it's important to live life well every single day--never waste a moment. You may feel, if you're in your teens or twenties, that you have moments to waste--and that's a fine, empowering feeling indeed. And it's true, you may have ninety or so years left--plenty of time to use anyway you so choose. But even if you're one of those unseasoned lives, or perhaps on the other end of the spectrum, or right in the middle of your journey, CONNECT with others as you move forward and bring POSITIVITY to this world. That is the definition of integrity. And it's all you have to pass on to others when it's your turn to move through the veil of eternity. Don't feel it's pessimistic to consider your impact (or lack thereof); you will only regret those things you did not do well--and living is one of those things. In order to truly live, you must connect (and therefore GIVE) to others. If I had to guess as to the overall divine human purpose, I would say it is that: Positive connection.
A friend once told me about an English assignment where the professor asked the students in the class to write their own epitaphs. Though a seemingly gruesome task, this exercise can help an individual visualize accomplishments in the span of t current lifetime. What would you like people to say about you someday? What kind of impact do you want to make on this world? How will the way you connect to others influence future generations?
Think about it, and let me know.