July 2, 2008

Celebrating Life

This is my friend, Cary Garcia . . .

On October 7, 2002, Cary was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Four days later, so was I.

We’d been acquaintances before. But the moment we discovered this terrible connection, we became fast friends, sharing information, sympathy and laughter. Yes, laughter. What a great antidote to fear, guilt and worry! There were flurries of e-mails between us, comparing symptoms and new realities.

And there were visits. Our families got together whenever we could. Cary and I occasionally met halfway between our homes for lunch as well.

I wondered what the waiter thought of the two bald women at his table when Cary and I met for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. Bold and wild, Cary proudly wore her bald head with big earrings and bright make-up. I covered my head in a simple scarf.

After three months of intense chemotherapy that required several hospitalizations, I was deemed cancer-free. Not fear-free, but cancer-free.

Cary celebrated my victory, but was never able to enjoy similar news. She’s never enjoyed a single remission. “Stop with the survivor guilt!” she wrote in one e-mail after I’d told her how badly I felt that we’re not both celebrating good news together.

I stopped with the guilt. And I helped Cary do exactly what she wanted – enjoy life as much as she could.

Together, we flew on three planes to get to an ovarian cancer survivor’s retreat in Montana in 2005. What an amazing time. We women got to forget our troubles for a little while and have fun with kindred spirits. That retreat is a very special memory for me.

This was the view from our cabin . . .

And here’s a photo with Cary holding up a t-shirt she’d just bought in a nearby town.

Camp Mak-a-Dream is an amazing place. Besides the ovarian cancer retreat, they have another retreat for women with cancer, but mostly retreats for children who need a break from the sadness of cancer. If you want to relieve yourself of a few bucks, you could find worse places to donate.

Five years after our diagnoses, Cary made a “Celebrating Life” party. She invited our family and her doctor and his family because she credits her doctor with keeping her alive this long and has come to love him and his family.

Here we all are, having a great time together . . .

Cary persevered through a rough summer last year that included a series of hospitalizations. Then, six months ago, when she wrapped Christmas ornaments for storage, she wondered if she’d see them again the following Christmas.

She won’t.

This summer is bad. Cary’s stomach has stopped working. And for a self-admitted lover of food, this is pure torture. Besides that, she’s sick most of the time. As I write this, Cary has suffered through 76 chemotherapy treatments. 76!

She’s ready to be done.

I visited her at home last week. She hardly looked like herself, lying on the living room sofa, under the Christmas quilt someone had made for her. Her voice was a hoarse whisper.

It was hard to be there, to say good-bye to my friend, but I felt honored to spend time with her during these last days. Cary told me about the most important parts of her life – Rey, her husband of 28 years and Lauren, her precious 16-year-old daughter. Of course, Cary would love to stay around and celebrate her hubby’s 50th birthday this December and watch her daughter grow up, get married and have children. But she's come to peace with the fact that she can’t.

When Cary was too tired to talk anymore during our visit, we hugged each other. Her frail arms wrapped around my neck and she whispered, “I love you.”

Well, friend, “I love you, too.” You’ve helped me sail through some rough waters.

Life is hard sometimes. It just is.

Last night, I read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. It made me cry, but it was full of life and love and lessons I wanted to impart to our sons. When I’d seen Randy Pausch’s lecture on the Internet, his wife, Jai, hugged him at the end and whispered something into his ear.

“I wonder what she’d whispered,” I said to my husband.

At the end of Mr. Pausch’s book, I found out. Jai held onto him and said into his ear, “Please don’t die.”

All he could do was hug her more tightly.

This morning, feeling sad, I took myself to the beach, a place that always makes me feel centered and serene and grateful.

I looked out at the calm water and thought of Cary and of two other dear friends who are currently fighting cancer. I took note of some dark clouds in the distance, reminding myself not to wander too far.

Then I walked along the water’s edge, small fish darting near my feet.

I passed men fishing, families splashing in the smooth water, couples strolling along the beach, a woman checking a sea turtle nest. Everyone was friendly when we passed each other. And there was a glorious breeze off the water as I walked, but those dark clouds grew larger. And darker.

Lost in my thoughts, I kept walking until I came to a jetty.

While appreciating the landscape, an older woman, Dolores, came over and told me about her husband and two sons, ten grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and a sister who didn’t marry until she was in her 70’s. What a life! I touched Dolores’ hand, told her how nice it was to meet her and said I’d better head back because those dark clouds were getting closer. Dolores headed off to her car.

As I walked back along the water’s edge, I felt drops plink onto my skin. It was a long way back. I picked up my pace.

When the raindrops got fatter and fell faster, I jogged. Then ran. I don’t mind getting soaked, I told myself, as long as there is no lightning. South Florida storms can be ferocious.

With that, the sky opened up with a sharp crack of thunder. As long as there is no lightning. Lightning sizzled in a jagged line into the ocean.

Rain fell in fat pellets from dark clouds. Thunder boomed so loud, I huddled against the noise. And lightning continued to sizzle.

I noticed a woman standing under an overhang at a small bathroom and chugged up a hill of sand toward her. Another crack of thunder. I leapt off the sand, intending to go into the bathroom until the storm passed, but saw a car pulling out of a spot in the parking lot. Forget the bathroom! I charged toward that car, waving my arms.

The driver stopped, rolled down the window, and before I could say, “Could you drive me to my car?” he yelled, “Get in! Get in!”

“Thanks so much,” I said, water dripping down my face. “I was going to take cover in the bathroom, but—“

“It’s a good thing you didn’t,” the man said. “The bathrooms are locked. Where’s your car?”

I told him.

The woman turned toward me. “I’m Connie and this is Gary.” We talked about their sons at the University of Florida and my boys at summer camp.

When I got out of the car, before I could get into mine, a bolt of lightning sizzled nearby and thunder crashed. I dove into my car, took a deep breath and drove home, grateful for Connie and Gary. Grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Connie and Gary reminded me how much I have to be grateful for.

One of the things for which I’m profoundly grateful is Cary’s friendship.

Life is precious. All we can do is embrace it by living well, being kind to strangers, kinder to those we love and kindest to ourselves, hugging our kids (even though they drive us crazy sometimes), working hard and being profoundly grateful for blessings, like friends who are true and honest until the end.

Celebrating life,


Obsessedwithlife said...

I will keep your friend in my prayers.

I also love Camp MakaDream and have gone twice ;) to the Young Adult Sessions in May.

I am also looking forward to the comforting and serene feeling of the beach next week in Mexico with my (to be) new husband :).


Wild About Words said...


Thanks for your lovely thoughts.

Now why aren't you getting ready for your wedding?

Enjoy this glorious time in your life. You so richly deserve it.

With all good wishes,

Anonymous said...

Rachel -- I was so touched by your loving words for your friend, Cary. My mom (and my best friend) died from ovarian cancer last December, and she's in one of the pictures you posted from camp! What a wonderful surprise to see her beautiful smiling face beaming back at me as I read your words. Know that Cary will be greeted by her sister geese, with arms wide open.

Wild About Words said...

Dear Kelly,

Thanks so much for writing. I am so, so sorry to read about your mother's passing. But I'm glad I chose that photo and you were able to see your mom's smiling face. Thank you, too, for your kind words about Cary.


Anonymous said...

Cary was a woman I knew only through the written word, and her's are a treasure to read. We also shared OVCA. She would so love to know how lovingly you've written about her and your (our) loss.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post.

I'm very sorry about your friend.