Friday, March 30, 2012

Seriously a Strong Woman

You may not know it, but the community has suffered a big loss. I had to say good-bye to a friend today. I met Rachel as hospital roommates at Fairfax Hospital. I'm not one to make life time friends overnight, but I think that's pretty much what happened with Rachel and I. Rachel had cervical cancer, very aggressive cervical cancer. I heard as the doctors told her it spread to her lungs while she was on treatment. Difficult news, and difficult to know what to say to a stranger. We traded emails and phone numbers, and I think my mom may have scared them when she actually did stay in touch and join them in a women's cancer walk. Not knowing anyone at the walk, my mother was worried she wouldn't have anyone to talk to, but Rachel's family was so welcoming that my mom had a great day

From there, Rachel and I formed a strong cancer bond. We talked often about what was going on with each other's cancers. I would ask Rachel what was going on with her and after a few minutes of cancer complaining she would always say "ok enough about me! How are you feeling?" (sometimes the conversations worked in reverse. I would complain, then ask how she was). It was an odd friendship because we knew intimate medical details about each other's life - I'd ask how her white count was doing - but I didn't know much about her personal life. So we worked backwards to learn about each other outside of cancer. 

I watched as Rachel's husband and sister took amazing care of her. Anything to make Rachel happy or to make her life easier. It made me realize that my siblings and parents do that for me. I just couldn't see it or appreciate my family until I watched Rachel's family magnanimously take care of her. Rachel wouldn't have survived as long as she did without their loving support. I wouldn't survive without my friends and family. I know that now. We would often sit and marvel at how being sick can bring out the best in people, how we both felt so loved. Her family (and my family) should have no regrets, no doubts and no reservations about the care they provided. They did everything they possibly could for Rachel. She and I both agreed that we fight cancer because we love our families so much. We battle and take the chemo, radiation, medication, humiliation because we have to fight for our family and loved ones.  

Rachel wanted to write notes to her family to tell them how much they all mean to her. I don't know if she ever finished them, but I do know this: A. She was a perfectionist so the letters had to be just right. and B. There's no way to make them perfect or to say everything. How could one letter express a lifetime of love and joy that you share with your sister? It couldn't. (Just like one blog post isn't enough to explain how much Rachel helped me become a better person in the short time we knew each other). I told Rachel that at the end of the day, there was nothing she could write in a letter that her family didn't already know about how she felt. I think that helped because she was able to take a nap. :)

Rachel was truly loved by so many people. Her get well and sympathy card collection rivaled my own (and I had a 2 year head start). She proudly displayed all her cards in her kitchen - leaving little counter space. When you're sick you get so many cards, gifts packages, emails, facebook messages, texts, and phone calls that it's near impossible to respond to them all. But trust me when I say, from personal experience, that she read everything and all of the notes and messages combined into a big hug - a feeling of support and love - so even if you didn't get a response from her (or a response from me for my friends and family) know that the messages are still very important. 

I often joked that Rachel was my zen master. When I was confused/scared/upset, she could provide prospective in a single sentence that would make me feel better and more balanced. She taught me to stop second guessing myself (I'm still working on that one, Rachel). She told me it's ok to have an "OPP", an occasional pity party. We laughed often about "living life to the fullest" as doctors would recommend - we really tried to get out there and have adventures on good days. (adventures in this case means a visiting a pig farm or getting much needed pedicures). On bad days though, we redefined living life the fullest as fuzzy socks and long naps.

Rachel was one of my examples of handling adversity with dignity and class. (see previous blog on the subject). It's really hard to smile when you want to break down and cry, take deep breathes instead of throwing things in a hospital room, and hold your head up high when the doctor is giving you bad news over and over again. But Rachel did that and it took real courage. 

Rachel and I had many deep conversations about relationships. She pointed out that no matter how long or short your life is, you only have time for value-added friends. People who will enrich your life should be treasured and those friendships nurtured. Her and her family has certainly been value-add to my life. Even in death, Rachel was still a planner. She knew I didn't have anything blue for my wedding. So at her request, her family is letting me borrow a gorgeous blue sapphire ring to wear on the wedding day -  to be returned a later cancer free date. So you can see it at my wedding! I'll proudly be wearing it as my something borrowed and something blue. It's so perfect and thoughtful,  it makes me tear up when I think about it. That's what kind of person Rachel was.

So thank you Rachel, for being my zen master and making me a fighter. This isn't fair and you didn't deserve any of this. I'm really going to miss you. 

Rachel's blog: (I've said it before and I'll say it again: she's a way better writer than I am)