By Wendy Hodge
Pink water sprays from the courthouse fountain, pink bows are tied to lampposts, and the square is a sea of pink t-shirts, caps, and a tutu or two. October is breast cancer awareness month, and O Town has turned out to fill the downtown streets.
Every person is a story, and my job is to talk to them. Actually, my job is to start the conversation and then listen. And when I listen, hearts open and stories flow forth. Stories of courage, of loss, of friendship, of grief, but mostly of love. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? That’s the period at the end of every sentence in every story this morning – love.
There’s Karen, who lost her twin sister to breast cancer 14 years ago. Her voice cracks when she says her sister’s name. It’s Kim. Karen is the Breast Health Navigator at EAMC. She wears a pink tutu and works tirelessly in honor of the twin she misses every day.
There’s Sandra, whose daughter, Jessica, is fighting cancer right now. There is fatigue on Sandra’s face – unimaginable fatigue that comes from carrying the fear and sickening worry a helpless parent feels when their child is fighting for their life. But Sandra smiles… and walks today.
There’s Virginia, who is a six-year cancer survivor, and her sister, Lori, who insist on having their picture made together, their arms wrapped around each other. They cling because they know the fear of one of them being left without the other.
There’s Pam, who walks in memory of her husband, James, who died of undetected cancer. She walks in the hope that “undetected cancer” will soon be an outdated term. She walks because there is nothing more she can do for her husband now.
There’s Dr. Obiekwe, who walks for her patients… past, present, and future. There’s Bill, volunteer chaplain at the cancer center, who has seen untold grief and a few miracles, too. There’s Lisa, who walks with her friend, Kristy. Kristy wears a scarf on her head and courage on her face. There’s Debra, who walks with her grandsons because she wants them to know the value of giving of yourself. “We all need each other, don’t we?” she asks.
Yes, Debra, we do. Indeed.
Feeling just a bit overwhelmed by what’s been shared with me, I drive to the cemetery. Like the courthouse square, it’s where I go. Parked so that I can see my sister’s headstone, with the windows down, and the breeze blowing in, I let myself remember my own reason to Think Pink.
Denise was my friend. We met at church. Our children were the same age. We spent Easters at her house in the country, hiding eggs in their massive yard and eating at picnic tables. They spent the Fourth of July with us, sitting in lawn chairs in our driveway and watching fireworks. We lived behind the high school, so we had the perfect view without fighting the crowd.
Denise was irreverent and funny. She sang as loudly as she laughed, and she smiled continuously. She struggled with her weight; she doubted her ability as a parent on a regular basis; and she called me Wendall. She was a perfect friend.
Denise got tired one summer, not long after the fireworks faded. She went to the doctor. Here’s the thing about doctors – like any other profession, there are superb doctors, and there are duds. Denise had a dud. When she told him she wasn’t feeling right, he gave her antibiotics. When she said she wanted a mammogram, he gave her anxiety pills. When she had the mammogram anyway, he gave her the bad news – breast cancer, Stage IV.
I remember that day. She called me and said, “Wendall, I think I need to cry for a few minutes. Wanna come over?” And I did. We cried, and then we planned, and we summoned courage, and we resolved to get through this terrible thing.
As the summer was ending, Denise had a double mastectomy. The morning after, I went to see her in the hospital. Before I even got to her room, I could hear her screaming. Rushing in, I saw her hanging off one side of the bed. Her call button had gotten tangled in the tubes draining fluid from her chest, and the whole thing had fallen to the floor. The fresh surgical sites were being pulled, and she was screaming for help. As quickly but gently as I could, I lifted everything back onto the bed and pushed the button for the nurse. Denise clung to me, panting and crying. “I knew you’d save me, Wendall.”
Oh, Denise…. How I wish I could have.
The nurse came with sweet relief that she shot into Denise’s IV. We cried together for a minute, and then she shook her head and said, “Enough. I have news.”
“Okay,” I said. “Tell me.”
“I’ve decided to have reconstructive surgery. They’ll take some tissue from my stomach to make new breasts. And it hit me this morning – all these years I’ve felt guilty every time I ate a brownie, and what I’ve actually been doing is growing a new set of boobs!”
With tears still on our faces, we laughed – loud and long. And then her face grew still. Just before she fell asleep, as I was about to rise and slip out the door, she whispered, “Wendall… here’s the thing… Eat brownies. Laugh loud. Love your babies. Don’t forget, ok?”
I won’t, Denise. I haven’t.
She died on Christmas Day. At her funeral, a slideshow played on a screen behind her coffin. Pictures, snapshots of her life, rolled soundlessly by. But I could hear her laughter. I still do.
The Think Pink Walk is just beginning. It’s not too late to get a shirt of my own and walk for Denise. I think I’ll do just that.