Perhaps the reason that Debbie's story has been written several times, yet never published, is because I have always felt it was a never-ending story. Debbie has asked me often, “When are you going to publish my story?” The one I started a number of years ago. I tried several times – I never finish. How do I tell all of our stories....all the adventures, the quilting, the talks, the laughs? And now, when Debbie must look death in the eye, and those of us who love her must too....I still feel her story is never-ending. I cannot rewrite it and edit it enough to make it as perfect as it should be. I may still find the photograph of us wearing the pink coats. I may recall another story. It cannot be what it should be. Yet, because Debbie deserves to see it in print....here you go, my friend.
It was 1992 when I moved to San Diego - thought the world stopped. I was leaving Corning, New York, where my children (6 yrs, 3 yrs, 6 mos) were born, where I had good friends, where I taught school, and where I thought I could live forever. My dear friend, Lorraine, had a cousin, Debbie, who was living in Pacific Beach, near where we were moving. Lorraine wanted us to meet. Shortly after our move, I received a call from Lorraine. She asked what I was doing that day. I said I wasn't sure....probably just being a mom and running errands.....trying to juggle 3 children and their needs in the air! So, she told me I was having lunch with her cousin, Debbie. Debbie had had a mastectomy recently, due to cancer, and was recovering. I couldn't say “no” - but I was scared! I had no idea what I could say to her. I had never known anyone with cancer.
The thing is, what I have learned from my phenomenal friend Debbie...is that it is not what you say, but what you do. Debbie told me once that it was great when someone would call her and say, "I'm going to the grocery store do you want to go with me?" She said she loved doing ordinary things with a friend when she was sick.
Because of the number of times that Debbie was getting sick, she created a website for communication through Caring Bridge (an online website that manages medical email updates for families with a loved one who is ill). Debbie started her Caring Bridge website in November of 2010. When I would get Caring Bridge emails (a ping for a new update), I cowardly ignored it for a day or two....for fear that I would be informed that my dear friend would be in trouble. Until today. I couldn't sleep this morning. I decided to get up about 5:00 am and checked email. There was a ping for the Caring Bridge website and against my usual nature, I opened the message right away. My friend said that there was nothing more they could do for her. Debbie is my cat - my nine lives. She is my hope of all hopes. I cannot fathom her not in my life. Until today, when she and her husband, Chuck, had a sense of finality about the cancer. "NO" for some reason was my best response. I knew how much pain she had been in, and for this I felt selfish. Yet, no, Debbie is not going. They will find something.
After our initial get-together in Pacific Beach California, our families got together for Thanksgivings, Halloweens, beach picnics and New Years. Debbie and I enjoyed quilting and crafts and being moms together. I had developed a friendship with a girl who lived down the street from me. This was right about the same time I met Debbie. Before the 3 of us got together though, Julie found out she had a brain tumor. She underwent a time period where she had to be in a hyperbaric chamber so that she would not lose her sight. Julie was in a hospital, near Los Angeles, about 2 hours away from Debbie and me. I wanted to visit Julie, but I was nervous about the drive and what to do about the kids. Debbie was first to say she would drive with me. We both found sitters and we were off. Although our reason for going was tough...we called each other "Thelma & Louise"and laughed all the way there. We were only allowed to see Julie for a few minutes. We asked her if we could get her anything. She said strawberries - and we were off in an unknown land looking for strawberries. We delivered them back to a very grateful Julie and drove the several hours back home. Debbie made things possible. There was no hesitation.
Once we went to Tijuana – but the best memory there is a simple one. We were grabbed by a local
photographer with a mule and some brightly colored sombreros. Debbie and I (the "quilt queens": in other words...color was always important!) spent much time choosing the sombreros for our group...making sure we all got our favorite color so the picture would be a bright colorful memento of our Mexican trip! We put on the hats, posed with the extremely aged mule, laden with an equally bright striped serape, and smiled large. It is easy to smile around Debbie....her laugh is infectious, and merely picking out hats was cause for laughter and good humor. The photographer took our picture with a Polaroid camera, asked for $10, and then handed us a black and white photograph! Obviously, much laughter ensued whenever we come across that photo, colorful in spirit rather than pigment.
After too short a time, Debbie moved to the Midwest, and shortly after that (1995) I moved to Minnesota....we at least felt we were close again. I visited her in Iowa, and she came to Minnesota.
We stuck by each other. We both had things going on in life and....we leaned on each other. We stitched quilt blocks together for her son Greg after one of her surgeries. She was so excited that it was almost completed and looked forward to hand-quilting it.
While in Iowa, the cancer came back yet again. I lost track of how many times she had surgery. She was a pillar of strength. She needed surgery again. After the surgery, she got an infection. I was talking on the phone with Chuck (he is the original St. Charles, I am sure), and he was the most upset I had ever witnessed. He said that they had exhausted their family resources for help. Everyone needed to get back to work. Debbie was still in bed with an open wound. I had no idea what that was. There is one very positive thing about owning your own business - No one can tell you not to leave it. I drove the 7 hours to her house the next day. Chuck met me at the door and got my bags inside. It was early spring, promise of sun and growth, but still a chill in the air. He told me that Debbie did not want to see me. He said that she had gained 50 pounds of water weight from the surgery and she didn't want me to see her like that. So...NO! Hi my sweet friend...you are beautiful! And, we all got past that, and cried and cried. The following is taken from my journal of that week.
Day 1. Debbie stayed in bed. We chatted a little. She was very sullen, and seemed angry, and definitely in pain. I cleaned the house, got settled in and tried to figure out what I could do to help. Chuck came home to change her dressings. I watched so I could do it the next day, even though I wasn't sure I could.
Day 2. I decided I should cook, too,...even though I'm not much of a cook, but opened the freezer to find that so many neighbors had brought over lasagna and chicken dishes that there was really no need for a cook. So, Debbie and Chuck were spared from my cooking. I got out some quilting handwork I had brought and sat with Debbie while I worked. She watched. She was quiet - we both were...not common for us. She told me she was mad because she wanted to die, and Chuck begged her to hang on. She was in so much pain, and now on the mend, but she couldn't' get past that feeling. In the late afternoon, it was time to change her dressing. Her stomach was the equivalent of a 12" long thick steak cut 4" deep through the middle, rare. The cut was filled with gauze that needed to be replaced every several hours. You literally were to dig out the gauze, squirt a cleansing solution and re-pack with gauze. It took every ounce of whatever that is that you need to do that. It can be done if you think that she needs you and it is worse for her..magnified beyond measure. She couldn't get to the bathroom herself, take a shower, clip her toenails. She was dependent. She was depressed. She had had the surgery about 8 weeks prior.
Day 3. She asked me what I was sewing on. I showed her. She watched me work. I changed her dressings. I was engulfed in her grief. She asked if I would get a quilt out of a drawer. She had been hand-quilting it prior to her surgery. It was the Eight Point Star - for her son Greg – the one that we had sewn the blocks together on a previous visit. I got it out. Dressing was changed again. I don't think I could get used to that.
Day 4. "I will plant flowers for you if you like. But, you need to get into the car to go pick them out." I said. Chuck and I both thought that Debbie could use a drive in the car and some fresh air. That afternoon, she picked up Greg's quilt and started quilting. I picked up mine.
Day 5. She quilted more. She got dressed. She came downstairs. She suggested a nursery to go get the plants for the garden and suggested we go the next day.
Day 6. She got dressed and came downstairs for breakfast. She quilted. We made a plan to go to the nursery that afternoon, after lunch. We drove up. I told her I would bring flowers to the car for her to see. She said she thought she could get out of the car. She painstakingly did that, though the pain was not evident on her face. I knew that wound was there - I could almost feel her pain, and I knew it must be that much worse. She walked among the flower baskets, potted plants and flower beds. We picked bright beautiful flowers that held promise for a cheerful summer.
Day 7. Debbie was up and at her quilt early now, that was her drive. The more she stitched, the more she stood up, and walked. The more she stitched, the more she smiled. I went out to plant the flowers that day. She watched from inside as she quilted. The spring sun beat down on me as I dug and plowed the dirt with my hands, realizing that I was deliberately angry with the land, the situation, the force that did this to her. NO! This was not fair. I beat the ground and found myself sobbing my soul into the wells I had dug allowing the tears to fall to the earth so that she would not see. If it is so hard for me...how is it for her? I planted the flowers and went in to get Debbie to see if it was all as she liked. We looked at all the promise and cried together, and laughed with the joy it brought us.
Day 8. Debbie's wound was showing signs of closing! With her renewed spirit, improved health, flowers planted and Debbie happy to be quilting, it was time for me to head back to my house. I hated to leave her. I took solace in what she said. "The quilting brought be back. I realize that if I always have a quilting project - something to finish, then I will never die. I will always have something to look forward to doing." It was with a very heavy heart that I drove away. But I drove away with renewed strength. How does she do it?
1997 – 2004
After a few years in Iowa, Debbie and Chuck moved to Tennessee, then to Bonita Springs, Florida. I visited Debbie and Chuck when they lived in Tennessee, and Debbie and Chuck visited me in Minnesota. We laughed, quilted and had great times! During these years, Debbie had some health issues, but always recovered. She was a rock – my inspiration. Life seemed like it was good. My friend forever.
One New Year's Eve, I flew to Bonita Springs to spend the holiday with Debbie and Chuck. Debbie had just finished a bout of chemo and lost her hair. We donned colorful bandannas and headed out shopping with relatively small budgets. We found some great coats - I suspect that they were the brightest thing we ever bought. Hot pink, with a very contrasting deep black fake-fur collar. But, they were a mere $7, so a good deal on top of being adorable in a fluorescent kind of way. Yet, we both felt the purchase wasn't necessary and were feeling like we shouldn't. Then, Debbie said, "Unless we buy them for a gift for each other." And, so we did. A “surprise no-specific-reason gift”! I have treasured my now out-of-style coat and continue to hang it in the closet and admire the intensity of the pink and the softness of the contrast fur.....only to be matched by the intensity of our laughter while standing in the shop formulating our plan for our matching gifts! I suspect that no one else can appreciate this - it is that kind of laughter that you need to be in on from the beginning, and every time you bring it up again...it causes that same reaction. I recently asked Debbie if she still had her coat. She said her husband never really liked it, but her sister did. So, she gave it to her sister, but told her it had special meaning and couldn't be given away. So, our coats and the story live on - giving bright reminders of love and friendship.
October 30, 2009 – email excerpt from Debbie after they had moved to Chesapeake, VA to be closer to their kids.
“I love the house we found - it's actually for sale, but we wanted to be sure that we found an area we like before we commit to buying. The house is a two story, with a nice yard (lots of trees) and a sun porch. It has four bedrooms and a finished room over the garage (which is my sewing room!!!), formal living room, huge dining room, kitchen with breakfast area, and family room with a fireplace. We have already built some fires. The kids came over a couple of nights ago and we carved pumpkins - eight to be exact...family, a crackling fire in the fireplace, chili, cornbread and pumpkin pie...what could be better? Did you know that we are going to be grandparents? Greg and Jen are expecting January 2 and Erin and Brian just found out that they are going to be parents too! Erin is due July 8. So, two grand-babies in one year! Can you believe I'm old enough to be a grandma???? I am so excited I can't stand it.”
Debbie finished Greg's quilt and sent me a photo of her and Greg with the quilt. And, I sent her another pattern so she could start thinking about colors for another quilt.
I needed a photo of the technique “stitching-in-the-ditch” and “tying” for our Rob Pete book. Without telling Debbie this, the next day, she sent a photo of a quilt she had just finished. It was made out of her mother's clothes as a gift for her sister, Nancy. She had tied it and stitched-in-the-ditch – and “hoped” I liked it! Not only was it beautifully sentimental - which I love - and beautiful in color and skill, but it was one of the exact patterns, Pumpkin Seed, in the book. Too funny!
At some point, Debbie told me that the doctors told her she needed to learn to “live with cancer”. She had taken a test and learned that she is missing what most of us have, called a “tumor inhibitor”. That seemed to me to be the beginning of accepting cancer. Debbie and Chuck have been working on a book about their experience. They want to give hope to others going through cancer treatment. They have generously shared chapters with me. This, in hindsight has helped me understand some of the things that Debbie has gone through. Debbie was angry for about a year after the experience in Iowa. She and I talked about this back then. But, I only realized lately what had happened to her. She was under anesthesia when Chuck had to make a decision to expand the surgery to remove 90% of her liver rather than the 30% that they were expecting. Toxins entered her body due to infections and were not able to be adequately processed by the small amount of liver left. She was in constant agony from the wound and had high ammonia levels. Her personality changed, which I did witness....she was angry and did not want to live. This was the only time I heard her talk like this. Chuck held steadfast and knew that the woman who loved him would return. And, she did....and she was blessed with many more loving years with her family and 3 grandchildren. With serious cancer issues, she was determined to live life to the fullest.
Both Debbie and my family have moved around a lot, now 22 years later. We have used our moves as a way to look forward to new friends and experiences. And, we continue to see each other in whatever city we might be. Currently, I am in Bend, Oregon and she is in Virgina Beach - about as far apart as possible within the continental US - coast to coast. I was able to spend her birthday with her this year, in May. We went shopping and bought each other a blouse – the same blouse....good price, too – a nod to our pink coats. It pains me that I can't drop by and have a picnic like we did in Pacific Beach. The last time we talked, she had a sewing project, and we are currently working on a quilting project together. To those times, I look forward, though our quilting project is in its infancy, I cherish that we have it and that it keeps us both alive - spiritually, mentally and physically.
I do not know how to let go of my dear friend. She does not know how either. Fortunately, we have been able to talk about this and we are both grateful that we can be honest and share our feelings. We are grateful that we can call and cry. I wish I could take her to the grocery store. She put up a Christmas tree last week. I sent her an ornament of a Santa Moon, because we are all under the same moon, even though we aren't sharing a picnic lunch or going to the grocery store.
I asked Debbie and Chuck if they would read this story and let me know if it is “ready”. Debbie has been bugging me for several years now, I say with a smile on my face,....to make her story an “on” article. I am honored to do so. When Chuck emailed me back with his comments, he added this:
“ One last thing: the many experiences with major surgery and debilitating chemo turned us into very effective cancer warriors – able to keep our minds when all about us were losing theirs. It's ironic that this experience makes the transition we are going through that much harder. Instead of finding hope in the expectation that whatever pain and suffering we might be going through right now, there would be relative good health and love and life on the other side of the challenge. Now our hope comes from knowing that there is life on the other side of this life. But...letting go of our place together in this time/space continuum is our biggest challenge yet. Out of habit, we continue to spar with death – unwilling to lay down and accept its mercy.”
When I have it tough, I think of Debbie. I think of her open wound filled with hurt and pain and the wish to die, and how a simple quilt could help to close that wound. I learned to not be afraid to help. I learned to do whatever feels right in your heart. I also learned that Lasagna 7 nights in a row is quite fine! I learned that you don't need to be afraid even if you don't know what to say. Just call, just go, just do. The words are not needed. Hugs and hand holding are good. Listening is good. One foot in front of the other.....always have something to finish. Look forward to doing something you love. Debbie continues to live this way. After that August 2014 Caring Bridge post, she told me on the phone: "I'm not going out this easily! They might think that, but that is not how it is going to happen!" I'm not giving up!". Strong words from my very strong and inspiring friend.
My dear Debbie...I love you my friend. Thank you for the strength, courage and faith you give to me and to so many people! You have inspired me to persevere....in the midst of extreme hardship. You laugh, you joke...you make life fun. You bring joy to all who are blessed to know you. You make a never-ending difference in all of our lives. Your story is a never-ending story, as is our friendship and the never-ending impact you have made. There will always be something to finish....in this story, and your life, and your legacy. You are an angel on earth.
Keep stitching, my friend.
To be continued....