Thursday, January 29, 2009
The Magical, Magnificent Deb
I wanted to wait until the initial shock and pain wore off before I wrote about Deb because I know she would want it that way. She would want something written that reflected her tremendous capacity for joy, hope and love.
Deb Clonan, “Alaska Deb” touched the lives of everyone she came into contact with - be it from her home town or across the globe. I am not from her home town, but I knew Deb. She was my sister. Not by birth or blood, but through a disease we shared with thousands of other sisters who gather together online to share the journey we didn’t ask to take, called breast cancer.
Deb and I have been friends since the first post she made expressing her fear about her particular type of breast cancer that was not as common as the kind most women get, and it has a bad reputation for being more aggressive and harder to beat. I also had that type of breast cancer, but I was a few years out of my diagnosis and this helped her find hope, knowing that women can survive it. Sadly, it did not turn out that way for her. But Deb would be the first to tell you that she lived - really lived - every moment she had on this earth.
Along with our diagnosis, we shared a love of writing and reading and in particular a play. I once posted a line from this play when there were some upsetting things happening on our support forum, and Deb said that it gave her chills because it was her favorite line of any play. If ever there was a time for me to share it with you, it is now. Deb is no longer on this earth, but she is with us. Around us. And she saw that life was so very precious while we have our time here. So many times she would step in as the peacemaker when squabbles would break out, because she wanted everyone to stop wasting time and appreciate life right now - because that may be all we have.
In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the character Emily dies. She begs the Stage Manager to come back to earth for one day - just one day. He advises her that it wouldn’t be a good idea, but she insists and he relents.
It is painful for her to watch her family walk by each other without truly seeing each other. Her parents and brother talk but don’t listen. She sees that the living are going through this life without really living it, experiencing it, rejoicing in the split second of time that is alotted to us all. Finally she begs to be brought back to her grave, because she cannot watch it anymore. In tears and anguish she turns to the Stage Manager and says, "It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it, every minute?"
The Stage Manager replies,” No. The saints and poets, maybe.”
Deb was one of those poets who realized it. That is why it was her favorite quote.
When I had a new cancer diagnosis, Deb was not going to let me despair. In fact, she rallied everyone to my side. She and her beautiful daughters made buttons that said “No Surrender” on them, and she sent them to everyone in our circle. Many of the women who received a button wore it on their purse or jacket when I was starting treatment or going through one of many surgeries. She helped me through a very difficult time. That was Deb. She was there when you needed her. And she even let you know she cared when things were going just fine, too. When I started my own support board and website, she wrote me words of encouragement and gave me wonderful suggestions to make it the best it could be. She wanted it to succeed and she was a big part of its success.
When Deb found out that her cancer had spread there was an outpouring of support for her. NOT DEB! We were frantic. But it was Deb who let us know it would be OK, no matter what happened. Deb had a deep and abiding faith that guided her and sustained her. She gave us faith and courage through her own faith and courage.
She did not have an easy time of it. She had problems with her port that delivered her medication to her spine that caused terrible side effects. The worst of all was the inability to communicate. For someone as verbal and communicative as Deb, I think that was probably worse than the cancer for her. For Deb to not be able to speak or write was the cruelest thing cancer could do.
Deb was blessed to have a husband who took care of her completely and lovingly. I have spoken to John often and I didn’t know there were men like him around anymore. I thought they discontinued that model. Fortunately for Deb, they didn’t. For he was a gift to Deb and I am forever in debt to him for helping the dearest of souls through the horrors of this disease.
John and I had a good, long talk today. He has given me permission to share with you her last days. He told me he didn’t know what to post to us because he didn’t want anyone to lose hope or be discouraged because Deb passed away. Because, he said, Deb would never want anyone to lose hope or become discouraged. She would want everyone to keep fighting and keep living - every minute.
Her last days were blissfully without any pain. She didn’t even require Tylenol. Her bed was set in the living room in the middle of all the action. On Saturday, the night before she died, she was sitting up in bed laughing watching her girls play with their wii. Sunday morning came and the cold Alaska landscape was shimmering with sunlight. It was a beautiful day. The girls went to church early and John left a little later. When he returned he kissed Deb’s forehead and said “Hi, I’m back.” Her parents and cousin were there with her as well as her best friend. After a while her friend called him over to her bedside and the time was growing near. He held her hand and talked to her and kissed her. Deb was in no pain, bathed in sunlight, with her family around her when she took her last breath.
And at the very moment she passed her dogs went absolutely nuts. They were barking like mad and began deliberately running to the South-South West field all the while they were looking up at the sky, clearly following something. John and the family watched them because they knew they were watching Deb break free of the chains of cancer and she was free to be outside and flying high to her loving God who awaited her. When John looked back at the bed, he saw that the body there was not Deb, what was there was just the body that housed her. Deb’s spirit could not be contained, she soared free. And she is with her family and with all of us. And she is Deb again. Cancer can never touch her ever again. Deb is free.
Last summer Deb sent me a book by one of her very favorite authors.... someone she called a “local author.” The note said, “This is my favorite author, I really hope you love this book as much as I do.” It was about a little town in Alaska and it is called, “If You Lived Here I Would Know Your Name.” I smiled. I shook my head in wonder. I had to tell Deb.
“Deb, you know that book you sent me? About your town? If You Lived Here I Would Know Your Name? The author and I went to school together here - on Long Island. She grew up right here where I live.
And this, of course, was answered with Deb’s contagious laugh. She loved it. She thought that was the most amazing coincidence ever.
It was just another magical Deb moment. I believe with Deb there are no such things as coincidences. She was magic.
And now that she has left us in body, the world is seeing that everyone knows Deb’s name. Why? Because she realized life while she lived it- every minute.
I know you are around us all, Deb. I will miss talking with you, but I know I will feel your nudges.... and I know I will find myself smiling for no reason and it will be because of you. I also know when I get scared or down or feel sorry for myself you will find a way to snap me out of it.
I would like to make a request- for those of us who cannot be in Alaska for her funeral celebration which will take place on Saturday at 2PM, let’s each of us get a balloon and write our name and Deb’s name on it, stand facing South- South West, and send it up to her. Deb would love that.
And to you, Deb, I thank God you were my friend. I will love you forever and will never forget you. The kids are doing OK. You did a good job with them. And John is honoring you every moment.
Until we meet again,
Gina, “No Surrender”
No Surrender Breast Cancer Foundation
(Yes, Deb, I am putting it in the signature, like you always told me I should do!)