Because I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 26 and because a group of us were moved to form The Young Survival Coalition, I have gotten used to the fact that I have to say good-bye to many people who simply could not survive. First, there was Maria Emilia Rivera, And there was Carol Hochberg and Jane Soyer and Lisa Muccilo and Carolina Hinestrosa and Tracy Pleval Hill and Susan Cohen and Randi Rosenberg and there were more…so many more. I said good bye to all of them. Many times, because I knew they had stage IV breast cancer and I wanted to be certain, I said good bye. I did everything I could during their lifetime to show how much I supported them, loved them, and valued them. I tried hard to make their final journey easier. I did what little I thought I could because I knew what they had to do was more difficult than what I had to do.
When I was with Randi Rosenberg in hospice the night before she died, I said good bye to her (not certain if it was the last time) and then I said good bye to her “civilian” friends. (civilians from the War on Cancer) When I told them I had to get home to NJ to see my kids, one of them asked, “Are you okay to drive? How do you do this? How do you see this and then have what it takes to drive home?”
I thought for a second and then explained, that I suppose I have done it enough that I have developed a bit of a callous on my heart and that I also know that I only have to say good bye to one loved one. Randi has to say good-bye to everyone who is precious to her. So I do what I can to make it easier for her. But that yes, my life has to continue and my kids still need their mother and I have to have the strength to let her go be at peace so that I can do what she wants me to do. I do break down, but know now, that I need to function.
It wasn’t until last Sunday when I found out that someone very dear and special to me died that I realized how important those good byes were for me too. Kathleen (Kat) Werner, like all the others died too soon, too young, and left so many important people feeling the loss. Her family, her friends, her community, her fellow breast cancer survivors, the researchers she helped, and the follow advocates that she worked so well with and so many others. All of us were stunned, shocked and so heartbroken as we felt the aftershock of what life would be like without Kat. I was on a Young Survival Coalition conference call last week with Kat and a few others. We were all surprised to hear her voice. She was just home from the hospital with her newborn baby and she said it was the perfect thing to do while she recovered from her c-section. She sounded elated with all the love around her. We were happy to hear her, but we quickly got down to business planning a very important project to help re-evaluate YSC’s research Agenda and Kat contributed to the call enthusiastically and about an hour into the call when we should have been wrapping up. Kat quickly said, “I have to jump off now…bye!” and we all said “Bye, kiss the baby!” I don’t know if she heard us say good-bye because we heard a quick click as we wrapped up. And now nearly a week later, I realized that we never said good bye! Not only that….I saw Kat often at different meetings and we never really had the chance to say good bye. We just did our work, laughed together, ate together, debated together, collaborated together, but we rarely said good bye. She had so much to do to contribute to all the worlds that she wanted to impact: Breast Cancer, Aspergers, Girl Scouts, her church community and so many others. Good byes were not our priority. My biggest regret now, it seems, is that we never said good bye. And I fear the pain of losing Kat so suddenly has ripped at the callous that protected my heart. I am truly heartbroken to say good bye to someone who made herself indispensable to many. Her four beautiful children will miss her the most, of course. But my callous may not heal for some time and I don’t know how much I can get done with so much pain in my heart. I feel like an awful person because I hurt so much. I know she wants me to continue to get the work done…but right now the pain is too great. And I think, even in her death….she left us with the idea that the questions we must continue to ask are complicated. Is a woman with a history of breast cancer more at risk for blood clots post op? So even in her death, she is doing more to further YSC’s research agenda than I am able to do.