I am blessed to have so many wonderful friends in my life, people who sustain me with laughter and encouragement and love. But, I guess because I am human, it is one who is missing that often occupies my thoughts and my wishes for things to be different.
I first met my friend Sheila in my capacity as a La Leche League leader. It was more than thirty years ago that I received a routine phone call from a mom who had a breastfeeding question. It turned out we had much in common besides being young mothers. We belonged to the same church and we had the same Irish Catholic background, with all its accompanying and frequently hilarious baggage.
It was obvious to me very early on that Sheila was an extraordinary being in the guise of a very ordinary person. On the surface, she was a wife, a mother of three, a daughter, a sister to her many siblings and she had a great sense of humor. Once you got to know her you realized that first of all she had true and deep faith in God. Nothing proselytizing or smarmy, but a quiet and matter-of-fact spirit. She was someone who did good at the most basic level, with no fuss or calling attention to herself. The first one with a phone call, a hug or a meal when you needed it, sometimes even when you didn’t know you needed it.
In 1986 she found out she had a tumor that was supposed to be benign, supposed to be eliminated in a simple surgery. Talking to her the day after the operation, while she was still in the hospital, at one point she said “It wasn’t what they thought it was”. I couldn’t acknowledge the words, I kept blabbing on about other things. Ten minutes after we hung up I called her back. “What do you mean ‘It wasn’t what they thought it was’?” I choked out. “It’s not benign after all” she simply said, “And it came from another site.” Hearing this was like having syrup poured over my brain, the stickiness of the implications inescapable but the thickness just so hard to take in.
It was finally determined that breast cancer had been growing stealthily, insidiously and had spread to her brain. Medicine pulled out all the stops, although in the basest layman’s terms, she was a goner. But she was also stubborn. And so a five year battle began.
Sheila suffered tortures over those five years that most people never knew about, because she never complained. She kept up her life as if there were nothing different, even when she was in agonies of pain. Most of all, she continued to be a devoted, passionate mother to her three children. There were many trips into New York for chemo. Sheila always had someone to go with her. She was so well loved, there were more volunteers than there were opportunities, so she would go out of her way to find a way to include a person and make them feel as though they were helping.
She hung in there, but we often talked about how hard it was to discern the difference between practical hope and unreasonable expectations. We never really came up with any answers. I never believed for a minute it would actually happen. I was so sure we laugh together at our children’s weddings. She finally decided that if nothing else, she wanted to live long enough to see her youngest receive his first Holy Communion.
She did. It was in May of 1991. She grew steadily weaker until by the last week of July she couldn’t get out of bed. I brought dinner over on the evening of the 29th, but by that time all she could eat was Jell-O. Sitting on the bed talking to her, my arm brushed her foot, which was like an ice cube. “Oh, your poor feet!” I cried and I started rubbing them to warm them up. I wasn’t a nurse yet, I would be starting nursing school in a few weeks. So what I didn’t realize was that Sheila’s feet were cold because her heart was failing.
That night she was taken to New York by ambulance. She died in the early morning hours. Ironically, for how loved she was, she was all alone. I’ve often thought that was so like her. Only by being alone did she feel she had the freedom to go.
In twenty years I do not think there is a day I haven’t thought of her. I am such a whiny baby when it comes to my own illness, I ask her to pray for me, that I could have even a fraction of the grace she demonstrated. I remember those days when we had a bunch of little kids running around and we sat at each other’s kitchen tables, drinking endless cups of tea and laughing ourselves sick over anything and everything. I miss you still, Sheila, and look forward to the day we meet again.
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