This is a difficult post for me to write. I am not quite sure what I want to say. I’ve had words tumbling around in my brain for a month, and haven’t been able to get a single coherent thought onto the page.
Twelve years ago today my friend, Stephanie, died. She lost a long hard three year battle with Sebaceous Cell Carcinoma, a rare form of cancer. She was only thirty-five.
Stephanie and I went to school together and became really good friends in our Junior year of high school. We took our Cosmetology state boards together and held our first jobs together. We were pregnant at the same time. We shared a lot through the years.
I was in her wedding. I caught her bouquet, and Dirt Man (who was not yet my husband) caught her garter. We got married eleven months later and moved a way.
There were times when we weren’t in touch for a while, but always seemed to find our way back to each other. Even with over two hundred miles between us.
When I first heard of her illness, I was afraid for her, but I really truly thought that a surgery would remove it and she’d be fine. I did not know that at that time there were, I think, only thirty cases of that type of cancer. I didn’t know it would prove to be fatal.
Her cancer started with a tumor on her left eyelid and worked its way across her face and down her neck. The surgeons would try to remove lymph nodes ahead of the cancer, but it always seemed to be one step ahead of them. Stephanie underwent several surgeries, three trials of chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. And through it all, she never complained.
Stephanie had a positive outlook on life. She always found the best in people. Even when she was really ill, she would ask that we pray for others in more need than her. And whenever I called her which was often during her illness, she never, no matter how bad she felt, turned down my call.
Stephanie’s steadfast faith was what kept her and everyone else going. She was an inspiration to all who knew her and even to those who didn’t. She had always been a physically beautiful woman, but those who didn’t know her didn’t know of the vast beauty and selflessness deep within her.
When I first became baptized in the Christian faith, Stephanie warned me. I don’t mean that as a bad thing. She knew I was a little naïve. She knew I was putting these people up there with angels. She had to remind me that they were human, to take off my rose colored glasses or I’d eventually be hurt. She gently told me about church politics, and how not to let those type of things get in the way of my relationship with God. Recently, I was reminded of this conversation. Funny how well she knew me and wanted to prevent me from the fall.
It was Christmas 1997 at the end of the battle. Her family put lights on a pine tree outside her window so she could enjoy the lights. People started showing up and hanging ornaments to let her know they were praying for her. I think there ended up being about two hundred ornaments, and well over half of them were angels. I think that says a lot about people’s perception of Stephanie.
The week before she died, she tried to have a conversation with me. One I wish I’d been more willing to participate in, but it was unsettling. It was one I didn’t want to have. She told me that she didn’t think that God had a miracle cure for her, but that she’d like me to write her obituary. Most importantly, she wanted me to tell her story. I’m not quite sure how she wanted me to tell it, and I think that I have failed her miserably. I don’t think she expected me to be an inspirational speaker or anything like that. We both knew I didn’t have that in me. After her death, I went on an Emmaus Walk, and I thought that was the time. I was sooo wrong…I had gotten my agenda confused with God’s agenda. I have since had the opportunity to comfort others with cancer, some who were cured, and some who lost the battle. Still, I don’t think that was where I was supposed to take her story either. I mean I have talked about her ordeal and her faith, but I don’t think I’ve accomplished what she wanted. I’ve mostly just managed to carry it around in my heart.
I went to visit her over that Christmas break and I knew then it was only a short matter of time. I think I had been back home for a day, when I got the call early that morning that she had died. But I already knew before the phone rang. I had a really strange thing happen. I was awakened by a cool breeze brushing across me, and what I want to call a vision of a pair of moccasins pattering above my head and across the room. I have no idea what the semblance of that was, but I remember it. I also wrote about it in my journal. I have NEVER faithfully kept a journal, but that was one of the few random things I did manage to write over the years.
I went back to the county the next day. And I did write her obituary and eulogy. But I did not have to deliver the eulogy alone. Three other friends and I did it together, supporting one another. I don’t think that my words gave her memory justice. She was so much more than could ever have been put into words.
I found some words that I didn’t share. This was in my notebook: I wanted to cradle her love in my arms and rock it like a small child, but my arms could not contain all that she had touched./I wanted to grind her pain into sand that we could draw in our girlish secrets and brush them away with a swipe of our hands./I wanted to paint our friendship, but the colors of eternity did not exist./I wanted to trap her disease and throw it away, but it ran too fast for me to catch./I wanted to cradle her and keep her forever./My arms feel so empty now, holding only memories.
A few weeks after she died, I had a dream. I have never been one to analyze dreams, so again, it may have just been a weird dream like many others I have had. Anyway, I dreamed that I was swimming in a river, and Stephanie came shooting up out of the water. It was like she was a mermaid. She kept popping up and she said one and only one thing to me, “It’s not what we thought it was.” It troubled me at first, and I tried to figure it out in my own mind. Then, I relented that it was probably my minds reaction to my many unanswered questions.
Stephanie was a Baptist. I’m sure you know that they are known for their “tell it” sermons. She had requested a call to the alter at her funeral. Some people she loved gave their lives to God at her funeral. Her mission had been completed. She had anticipated a miracle, not knowing that she had been the miracle.
All along Stephanie said that God was using her in some way, maybe she was to be cured miraculously or maybe someone would be touched through her illness. Or maybe later someone would be inspired by her story. She didn’t profess to know His plan but had total comfort in Him. She was courageous and amazing. She taught me a lot about life and death and God. I am a better person for having had her as a part of my life.
Death and memories are strange bedfellows. Every once in a while, I still catch myself wanting to call her and share some snippet of my life with her.
Today I want to take a step back and remember the wonderful friend that Steff was to me. I want to recall her compassion, her faith, her humor, her beauty, and her talents. I want to remember the many roles in life that she played to others – daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend, cousin, hairdresser, neighbor, and many others. She played each of these roles with the greatest of love. I thank God for the many years that I was fortunalte to have been a part of her life. I am thankful for wonderful memories.
With love always to Steff…until we meet again.