A Friend to the End: A Story of Loss, Regret and Second Chances
Risa and I met on that first day of college. We were both one of the very few students left by our parents, shortly after the car was unpacked. Most of the student’s families stayed for the day-long orientation and were huddled in small groups. We were a group of two and became fast friends.
Shortly after a makeshift (cafeteria tray) sledding accident on campus, Risa discovered the lump. We thought it was a bruise from the tumble. It didn’t heal. It didn’t go away. It turned out to be stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma. With her treatments and recovery keeping her from school more and more, we started to lose touch. My friends and I were finally free from the restrictions of our parents, we were choosing our own paths, we were having the time of our lives! There was no way Risa wouldn’t recover and be back with us soon. We were all invincible. The cancer couldn’t get her.
We were wrong. Not being there for her in the final weeks of her life was the biggest regret of my life. I was selfish. I was stupid. I was never going to make that mistake again. I never imagined that I’d get a second chance to be a better best friend, until Lucia.
We were sitting on my blue flowered couches in the sunroom, breastfeeding our newborn babies when Lucia discovered the lump. “Is it painful?” I asked. “It could be a blocked milk duct.” It wasn’t painful and it wasn’t benign. It was already the size of a lemon and stage four by the time she was diagnosed the following week.
This brought back the haunting of guilt and regret over Risa and I was determined not to make the same mistake again. I told myself, “If I cannot reach through the phone lines and be there with her, I will drive to her house and pound on the door. If she will not come to the door, I will find a window. If the windows are locked, I will break the glass. I will be there. I will.”
Never imagining it was possible to go so far, I stepped behind the white hospital curtain to hold Lucia’s hand. In doing so, I crossed many boundaries: the doctors’, the nurses’, my family’s, my friends’, the illness’ and even my own.
The experience was both terrifying and rewarding. I spent many nights in the hospital sleeping in a recliner next to Lucia. One night she woke up and wanted to use the toilet. She had three invasive surgeries within the month and was slow to rise from the bed. I buzzed for the nurse but, she didn’t come. I helped Lucia into the bathroom with the IV in tow. Suddenly there was a wet splashing on my feet and legs. Lucia began whimpering and apologized over and over. I told her not to worry. We all have accidents. Once she was seated on the toilet, I looked down to discover that it wasn’t urine soaking my shoes. It was pieces of her bowels that had fallen out of a now gaping wound.
There were also times that our close-knit group of girlfriends would gather around Lucia to pamper her in every way we could. Deb would wash her hair. Diane would paint her nails. Jennifer brought fresh flowers. Michelle would bring her favorite foods and I would massage her feet. We’d relive stories from our mutual friendships with Lucia and laugh… and cry. But, most of all we were grateful for the feeling of purpose and the love we all felt for Lucia. We did the best we could to make her final moments peaceful, meaningful, comfortable and as loving as possible.
Lucia was lucky to be surrounded by so much love in her final days. She had this wonderful and committed group of friends, because she was a very generous and loving person herself. When she was initially diagnosed with breast cancer, she was introduced to Susie Roden, who then was the President of the South Fork Breast Health Coalition. When Lucia went through bouts of feeling better, she’d spend her time volunteering for the Coalition to raise money to support others. When Lucia became too ill to solicit donations for the next big fundraiser, she told me that I had to take her place. “Tell them they have to give big this year, because I’m dying,” she said. With Lucia’s many connections in our community, this phrase worked like a charm. Soon Susie and I were working together on many fundraisers and events.
When Lucia passed away in August 2006, the idea for Lucia’s Angels was born. We (Lucia’s friends) saw first-hand how there was ample support in our community for newly diagnosed breast cancer patients and patients in treatment but, there wasn’t a lot of support for late stage breast cancer. This debilitating stage is when patients need the most financial and emotional support. We wanted to be there for others, as we were for Lucia. Lucia’s Angels provides help and funding for gasoline gift cards, grocery gift cards, heating bills, dental work, housecleaning, rent, eyeglasses, food trains, babysitting, heating bills, health insurance premiums, automobile repair, ambulatory trips, therapeutic massage, transportation, salon services and wigs. From special wishes like one more trip to the beach, to providing extra child-care, to the holding of a hand, Lucia’s spirit and Angels will be there.
Through the years Susie and I have seen our organizations and our friendship grow and flourish. She is now the President of our Coalition for Women’s Cancers at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital (formerly the South Fork Breast Health Coalition) and I am the Vice President. I am the President of Lucia’s Angels and Susie is the Vice President. These sister organizations work hand in hand, supporting women in our community with breast and gynecological cancers.
Susie and I are both passionate about our cause and are easily inspired by each other’s enthusiasm. We also work very well together and find that our strengths and weaknesses perfectly complement one another. We have been dubbed the “Frick and Frack” of the breast cancer community and are quite often interviewed on live radio together, promoting our upcoming events. If I’ve forgotten to mention a sponsor’s name, Susie will seamlessly jump int0 the conversation to make that addition. If Susie gets stuck, trying to verbalize a thought, she will give me “the look” and I’ll inject myself into the discussion. At the same time, we both like to hold the microphone and an audience’s attention. During many of our fund raisers, we actually mock fight for the mike. This always draws some chuckles from the crowd.
With every challenge we’ve faced, whether it be running our organizations or personal issues, we’ve worked through it together to solve the problem. And, in doing so, I have found another best friend.
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