Deb is a single mom of a little girl named Abby who is just 17 hours older than our 7-year-old, Sam. Deb and Abby live in a quiet cul-de-sac in a suburb of St. Louis. Their house is nice, unassuming, and not overly remarkable. The only thing that looks at all different from the outside are the two wooden ramps that slowly lead up the steps by the front door. You might think that they are for easy access to and fro by an elderly relative, if they serve any purpose at all. They're so non-descript, that they barely stand out.
The inside of Deb's house is not all that different from the outside. It is tastefully decorated, with the smell of fresh spaghetti wafting through the air. And there are pictures of Abby literally everywhere. The furniture is comfortable, the colors and patterns inviting.
Well... there is one thing that really stands out: a bright pink Christmas tree, complete with presents around the bottom. To see this, you would think that Deb may be a little off her rocker if she's celebrating Christmas in August. Or, you would think she is completely lazy for not taking down the tree eight months ago.
But, no, Deb is neither crazy nor lazy. Deb... is dying.
I had never heard of Deb until last Wednesday. I was sitting in my office editing a video project when my phone rang. "Hello, tart," I said to my friend, Richard, but Richard was not in the mood to gab. Without so much as a "What's up, who-er," he began to tell me about a group of girls he went to high school with over twenty years ago. He had barely talked to them except via Facebook... which is how he discovered that one of them was going to lose her battle with cancer.
About six years ago, Deb was taking a shower when she felt a mass in her breast. As she was a delivery nurse at a local hospital, she was able to finagle a quickie mammogram just three days later. By the look on the radiologist's face, she knew things were very, very bad. Deb had advanced breast cancer. A bi-lateral mastectomy was to be followed by heavy doses of chemotherapy and radiation.
Thankfully, the treatment seemed to work. After all that she endured, she was termed "cancer free." From experience, I can tell you that those two words are the two greatest words you will ever hear. Unfortunately, months later, she would hear the words that caused everything to crash down:
The cancer has come back.
But it didn't come back in her breast tissue. It came back in her brain.
And she beat it.
And then it came back in her lungs.
And she beat it.
And then it came back in her bones.
And she beat it.
And then it came back in her spine.
And she beat it.
And then it came back in her brain... again.
But this time... the treatment didn't work. The cancer was progressing. The drugs made her bloated. She has a tumor on her optic nerve that has now blinded her in one eye and caused it to shut. Because of the former cancer in her legs and in her spine, she is unable to walk. She is always hot. She is always tired. She is, for lack of a better word... trapped. She is locked in a fruitless fight.
But fight is what Deb continues to do. She is painfully aware of the limitation of time she has, but she is leaving her daughter with memories that she will take with her throughout her own life. The Christmas tree? Yep, they celebrated Christmas on August 28. Her daughter Abby asked her if she was going to make it to her next birthday in February. Deb was completely honest, saying that it didn't look like it would happen. So they are celebrating Abby's birthday this week. (Don't tell my son, but Abby is getting a flat-screen for her room. Sam would sell an organ for a flat-screen in his room.)
I know all of this, because I had the honor and privilege of being one of a handful of people present when Deb made an audio recording for her daughter. My friend Richard and I drove to Deb's house last Friday with camera and audio gear, with the sole intention to let Deb say whatever she was going to say. When we got there, we were greeted by Deb and her pals, Beth and Stacia. These two ladies are just a couple of Deb's incredibly close knit group of friends...friends you would want with you through the battles of, and for your life. They are so close, that if you go to any one of their Facebook pages, they don't have pics of their families as their profile and cover pics. They have a picture of all of them together with Deb.
They all know the inevitable. They all know what is in store for them. They are not running away. They are slapping cancer in the face, acknowledging that while it may take Deb's body, it will never, ever take her soul... nor any of theirs. Because that is what cancer wants. Cancer is completely indiscriminate. It tries to hurt everyone it can. It knows that it's not just hurting the lone person directly: there are many casualties of this war, and to cancer... the more, the better. So these ladies defy it.
Cancer planning to take me before Christmas? Not this year. We're moving Christmas up.
Cancer going to make me miss my baby's birthday? Screw you, cancer. Not this time.
Cancer going to make my daughter never hear my voice again? I got two guys working on it now. Because I have a lot to say, and they have the technology to record me saying it. And they're making A LOT of copies!
I don't want to tell you about what she said to her daughter, Abby, because ultimately, it is between her and Abby. But I do want to share a couple of things, hoping she won't mind.
After Deb had recorded much of what she had written down, I could tell that there was more that she wanted to say, but may have been too tired to form her thoughts succinctly. So I asked her, "Is there any advice you want to leave with Abby when she becomes a mommy?"
Keep your cool. I know that this disease has been hard on all of us, kid. And very often, I was not able to keep my cool. And you didn't deserve that. And I'm sorry. So when you're a mommy, please try your best to keep your cool.
Being someone who has not kept his cool with his own children, I sobbed when she said this. Beth and Stacia, who were also in the room, were sobbing as well. We all knew that we had been guilty of this. We all knew that we would now think of this moment when we "lost our cool" with our own children in the future.
But she also said something and made me cry a tear or two with happiness.
And Abby, don't forget the pennies from heaven. Wherever you are, or whatever you're doing, whenever you find a penny, that's from me in Heaven. I am going to be with you every day of your life, and a penny will let you know I'm there in case you forget.
I smiled, recalling the excitement of every single time my boys Sam and Ben find a penny. It always makes them smile, which always makes me smile. Now whenever I see one, I leave it... hoping that a little boy or little girl will find it and share in the same exuberance as my own children. I also know that every time I see a penny from now on, I will think of Deb.
And that is who Deb is. I was in her presence for a grand total of two hours, and I know I will probably never see her again. But by just being her... not a woman with cancer, but a soul with a message... she has impacted my life profoundly. Her words will live on in her daughter, and in those blessed enough to have known her, for a lifetime like Beth and Stacia, or for just a few brief moments.
I walked in to her house not knowing what to expect. I walked out a better human being than I was before. Thank you, Deb.
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