She knew she had incurable metastasized breast cancer, that it had spread to a bone here, her brain in one bright spot on the Cat machine, a lymph there. She went to work every day and after work, picked up her son, Viking blonde and blue eyed, looking so much at three years old like his Daddy, and his older sister, same coloring with more of her Mommy's features. From the baby room where I worked, I could see her arriving, pulling into the small parking lot. She moved slowly in a way that reminded me of my Grandmother Elizabeth, carefully adjusting her purse. Sometimes she stood for a moment outside the chain link fence, watching the kids play, an inscrutable expression on her mouth. She walked past the door of my class and past the large glass panes that made up one side of my room. At this time of day everyone was outside. Her body was bent slightly forward and her face, even in profile, radiated a pure sadness quite unlike anything I've witnessed before. I watched her from the corner of my eye. If she was wiping her face, I would move outside the room through the other door, the one that led to the outside play area. I would meet her there and say hello and ask how her day had been. I would try to look both loving and appropriately reserved. I did not want to intrude if she did not want to let go. Oftentimes we would hug, and she would cry a little, and I would mostly not cry, because once I had read a cancer survivor say the worst thing, for her, was comforting others. Her face was swollen and discolored slightly from the radiation. Her eyes were a radiant light blue that mesmerized. They were like beams on a dark road, difficult to look away from. I recognized in her a pure sweetness that I have only come across a few times in my life, a simplicity of spirit, in the way that a flame is 'simple': complete, whole, radiant with light, filled with the endless energy of love. Around that beautiful spirit was a body that was falling away, letting go much too soon. I held her in conversations that grew more frequent and meaningful. Once, discussing an upcoming trip to the aquarium, she said ' I just want to do as much with my kids as possible, ' and cried. This was one of the rare occasions when I cried with her, gently. I don't like to recall what I said because it doesn't matter. What matters is if I could give her one, two, three moments at a time where she felt cared for, less alone, sharing some particle of her suffering.
Her husband and family and friends are loving and wonderful and she was very blessed in love. I was a friend on the outer rim of her circles, someone she met mainly because she had cancer, not the kind of friend anyone wants. I like to think of the importance of having friends like this as 'spotting'. It was a long drive from work or a doctor appointment or chemo to the childcare. It was a lot of time to think. To be overwhelmed emotionally, which she clearly was many times as she opened our doors. I could meet her and provide the momentary respite of human comfort, of a caring face, a hug, kind words. I like to think she found this in the hallway at work, at the coffee spot she frequented, the grocery store. I like to think that she walked the tightrope of the outer world, when she had to be away from her family and close friends, making it moment to moment with many spotters, reaching out to steady her.
Her children are very young. We all understand the gravity of this, we all acknowledge the enormity of this, the severity of this, the incomprehensibleness of this. The grief. Every day, she picked her children up, and often, she told me what they would be doing next. Trips to New York, the Zoo, the local parks, trips to the mountains, camping expeditions- camping! Can you imagine camping with a husband, two small children, and the pain and exhaustion of daily chemo pills and occasional radiation and a cancer that will not stop growing? Most mothers I know don't want to camp with a cold. Yet year after year, she did one of the most unselfish, brave and beautiful things I've ever seen, and put aside her suffering to make memories for her children. This was her mission. Our family saw her family at a local park, walking slowly through rocks, messing around. I greeted her with a hug and smiled at her husband. He was always there. They have been together since they were very young. She was not even in her mid forties.
Her motto became ' Be The BEE ' and this is why: One day, she was driving home from the island of Coronado. As she picked up speed, she noticed a bumblebee on the front window of the car, holding on in the corner by the wiper blades. Once on the freeway, she watched him, waiting for him to be swept away by the pummeling winds. But he was not. He held on for the entire long drive back to her home, still there as she pulled the car into the driveway and turned the ignition off. As she sat looking at him, she thought: That's me. I am like that bee. I have to hold on and hold on and hold on. And she told this story, and all of her friends began posting images and illustrations and photos of bees on her Facebook page, with the same tagline, so many it was like you could hear us chanting BE THE BEE, BE THE BEE- - willing her to hold on, as long as she could, because that is what she wanted.
Through radiation, through a broken rib, through brain surgery, through infection, through daily chemo, through losing her voice to this miserable, awful disease, she held on. She held on five a half years after her initial diagnosis. I cannot think of a more courageous act, as incredible as any bullet taking on the battle field, as inspiring as any hero in a fire. Day after day.
I will never forget this incredible act of love. I will never forget the courage and beauty that a human being can summon when doing so for love. I will never forget that being is what she chose to focus on, when it could have been all about the ending. I will never forget having the honor of being her spotter. I will try even harder, to be.