In Los Angeles yesterday, it rained for the first time in forever. On my 50th+ drive down to USC over the last year and a half, I saw a rainbow. And then Kevin called and told me our friend, Laurie, had died.
I met Laurie 23 years ago. She was a dear friend of my high school BF and maid of honor, N. They were both active in university politics which was super intimidating to a wannabe TV star like myself. I would play bohemian activist, Annie Hamer on the CBC series, Liberty Street (see: 2nd image). Laurie actually became one (see: 1st image). But we had a lot in common: We loved our friend Nicole, our dogs (her dog Emma used to eat and yes, poop socks), and our men (to whom we are both still married).
Laurie was a staunch feminist, whip smart, outspoken, witty and seemed very self-possessed. Quite frankly, she scared me a little. But I loved being around her. Around Laurie, the air was electric. She filled conversation with kindnesses and vulnerabilities, too.
When Kevin and I left for LA in 1996, she hugged me and said, “I hope all your dreams come true.” She may have not understood my dream, but she supported it. It was in her voice. Heartfelt. True. Delivered in a steady timbre with solid eye contact thrown in for good measure. BAM. Really, Laurie was my first woman crush.
Over ten years later, we reconnected on the love it/hate it/tolerate it/all-of-the above-it Facebook.
In February of 2008, my first kidney transplant had gone into chronic rejection. Nicole told me Laurie had been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in January 2006. By 2008, she had endured a double mastectomy and would have chemotherapy for the rest of her life. The stats on mets breast cancer are not great. Only 11% outlive diagnosis past 10 years. On one wide-eyed, drug-fueled night of insomnia, I devoured two years of her insanely readable blog, “Not Just About Cancer,” my heart pounding until the crack of dawn.
I felt sick for her, for her husband Tim, and their two very young boys, but I was grateful for our immediate kinship. For suddenly, I had found another comrade in this horrible club that no one ever signs up for: Chronic Illness and Pain.
Laurie wrote in a forthright, yet non-abrasive manner. She linked articles and definitions to highlighted words like metastatic and Herceptin (the chemotherapy drug her body super tolerated), so that the reader might learn along side her. She would publish a book from her blog, “Not Done Yet: Living Though Breast Cancer.”
In an absurd rush of insecurity, I admitted I was a wee bit jealous. Writing a book was something that seemed so incredibly out of reach for me at the time. I was spiraling ever deeper into renal failure, dialysis, and another kidney transplant, while “developing” the role of pharmaceutical whore. The “research” of which took me down, and very nearly out.
But Laurie’s tickled response to my insecurity was the encouraging and lighthearted,
“Lol. You can do it, too, you know.”
And that changed everything for me.
In 2008, Kevin set up a space for me on Blogger, and I began to write.
If you have read anything of mine, from those inconsistent first blogs to the more lucid, to excerpts from my completed memoir, In Pillness and in Health, know it exists because of Laurie. I hope she knew how transformative writing became for me, a daily reprieve from chronic pain. My spiritual salve when all else fails.
I loved that she took issue with Pinktober, the cancer–branded month of October. It gives the false impression that breast cancer is a “safe cancer,” that everyone gets out alive with a 5K walk and the purchase of a pink t-shirt. In fact, treatment options have little changed in the last 40 years. And when breast cancer metastasizes, it’s as deadly as any other form of cancer.
Perhaps Pinktober made her cringe the way I do when characters quip about selling their kidneys on sitcoms. My life-changing, science-fiction-esque medical miracle comes with myriad challenges I have been dealing with since age 19. A transplant is not a one day, quick fix event, nor should the curious prospect of selling a kidney to get out of debt EVER be batted around a Hollywood writers’ room, or come out of the mouths of glittering television stars.
In that Laurie and I were agreed. Not all publicity is good publicity.
(I’m betting Laurie didn’t like The Secret either, with it’s pernicious implication that the patient just isn’t “positive” enough if they are unable to cure themselves of cancer by watching funny movies.)
She served briefly as a beta-reader on In Pillness. Receiving a compliment like “riveting” from Laurie—who was one of the most well read women I have ever known—was like getting a gold star from your kindergarten teacher, the corner piece with the rose AND winning the lottery. In May of 2016, she read the first two chapters from my second draft, and then as she was packing for the hospital, squeezed in two more, before quickly shooting off an email.
The next day, Laurie would have an Ommaya Resevoir inserted into her brain for the delivery of drugs (e.g. chemotherapy) into the cerebrospinal fluid. She would be the first person in Ottawa to receive this treatment. That’s the kind of person she was. Helping little ol’ me mere hours before a shunt would be inserted into her cranium. By the end of 2016, she had 24 treatments injected into her brain. In 2017, she would have many more.
There’s just no way around it. Laurie inspired me. (I have a total love-hate relationship with this word.) It is not because she had cancer and was fighting the good fight. Those of us who are ominously tapped by the crooked finger of chronic illness, never asked to become inspiration porn.
If you have spent the majority of your life jumping out of bed every morning, without giving much thought to your physical health (and posting about your cold on Facebook doesn’t count), you are one of the lucky ones. You really, really are. But you will never know it. You can’t know it until it is taken from you. You have never heard the ticking of some Unnamed Thing in the air. And even on my darkest days, I still don’t wish that sound on anyone.
Medications. Side effects. Procedures. Pain. It wears down the best of us. We, The Sick, must give ourselves permission to express all sides. Over 11 years, Laurie’s words ran the gamut: From fear to appreciation to delight to resentment to absolute humility in lowering her expectations of people. (Oh, that’s a hard one to learn!) To taking a break from Facebook because she was a little sad and envious.
I loved reading this. (I did the same when I got sober in 2011).
I loved reading anything Laurie wrote.
It is a real gift to speak your mind, to live your truth and be willing to learn along the way. Laurie possessed that gift. It took me a while to realize that in pointing my finger at everyone, I might be telling the truth, but I wasn’t being honest.
Long before Oprah’s Golden Globe reminder, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Laurie seemed to have a lock on this nugget. And she polished this nugget to a profound gleam every time she wrote or we corresponded.
That was how she inspired.
One of the last times Laurie and I communicated was on one of my Facebook posts. I had written about staying sober through relentless nerve pain. Laurie told me I was a true inspiration, and that she didn’t use that word lightly.
Well. When she wrote that, in a weird way, I felt like I had arrived. As a writer, and a person.
I have one regret.
It has always been my intention to dedicate my memoir to two people:
“To L., who believed I could write. And to K., who never has to read it.”
I wish I had told her that.
Do me a favor. Tell someone who inspires you that you love them. That they have touched your heart. Please. For me. For Laurie.
Summer 2016: On the other hand, I feel lighter these days. I spent much of the summer feeling like I was about to die and just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nothing has changed really except that I seem to have decided to enjoy living. It's so much easier to exist this way.
Enjoy your health. Work hard. Love harder. Speak your truth.
Telling each other our stories is what keeps us alive.