On the loss of gifts and the gifts of loss

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We lost two of the 94 members of Hockaday’s Class of 1980 to breast cancer before  we reached the age of 40.  The thought of losing Catherine Hudgins Tuck and Erin Tierney Kramp (above) so early and with so much promise ahead of them still devastates me.  But their loss, and the way they faced death, brought lessons that helped me and countless others navigate life.

At the time, I remember thinking ruefully about how true Billy Joel’s song title “Only the Good Die Young” seemed to be.  Independent of the halo effect that early death can bring, Erin and Catherine were just two of the very best people you could ever hope to meet.  Even as teenagers, their goodness and special light were evident to all of us, though I have to admit that I took their quiet gifts for granted back then (probably because I was living life too loud and fast to truly appreciate them).  Erin’s bright smile and cheerleader’s outlook belied her fierce intelligence, and Catherine’s sweet good nature and unassuming devotion to service sometimes “head-faked” attention away from her truly remarkable gifts.

After graduation, we all hugged, signed each other’s yearbooks and wished each other well, as we headed off to places like Texas, Princeton and Stanford.  Catching up at reunions, I was never surprised to learn about the amazing things they did with their lives: each acing top schools, attracting great husbands, becoming devoted moms, developing brilliant careers -- Catherine as doctor in New York City, Erin as a venture capitalist in Texas.

And then Erin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994.  Like, I suppose, almost all cancer diagnoses, it came as a brutal shock and my first reaction was disbelief.  How could this happen to such a great, young person?  Where was the justice or the sense in this? How could this possibly fit with my conception of a loving God at the helm of the universe? I’ve learned since that my questions and the loss of my bearings were pretty much universal human reactions to the reality of death.

But Erin’s reaction to her face-off with death was far from common. She and her husband Doug decided to share their experience with others by writing a book called: Living with the End in Mind: A Practical Checklist for Living Life to the Fullest by Embracing Your Mortality.  And what they wanted to share was all of the gifts that cancer had brought to them!  What do you mean, the gifts of cancer? Yes, it was terribly sad that Erin was going to die, AND they had been awakened to new meaning and insights in their lives that they viewed as amazing gifts! And in their view, when you get an amazing gift you simply must share it with others.  Their message: Don’t wait for a terminal diagnosis to reap all the gifts that embracing, rather than denying, mortality can bring to you and your family!

Erin and Doug’s remarkable reaction, including Erin’s dedicated preparation of video messages of wisdom and for Doug and her daughter Peyton to access after Erin was gone, went “viral” before the term really existed.  Somehow Oprah caught wind of it all and brought them on her show several times before Erin passed away in 1998.  They reached millions with their powerful message, and Erin became one of Oprah’s “favorite people.” And we all got a wonderful reminder of Erin, when Oprah revisited her story in “Oprah’s Most Memorable Guests” segment at the end of the show’s run in 2011.  http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Oprah-Catches-Up-with-Memorable-Guests/8

Reading Living with the End in Mind changed me forever.  When I first heard about “the gift of cancer,” part of me chalked it up to a Pollyanna-ish defense thrown up against the encroaching darkness. But when I actually tried their suggestions, my experience backed them up. As they urged, I had those deep discussions with family members about death, and in turn I experienced the new richness and depth in those relationships.  Thanks to them, I’ve know for many years the songs my mom wants sung at her memorial service – and each one means more to me when I hear them incidentally in life.  And their lessons also help me now as I care for my aging parents.

I have to say that embracing mortality and viewing it as “standard equipment on all models” doesn’t make it any less shocking or painful when it arrives.  In the summer of 2000, when I received a phone call at work with the news that Dr. Jon Mayo -- my best guy-friend from college and surrogate brother – had died suddenly at age 38, blood started streaming from my nose. (I’ve learned since then that this emotional shock symptom is actually in the medical books).  But adopting the view that Erin and Doug urged has helped me to remember, that like treasured friends, death and disease rarely visit without bringing gifts.  And merely bringing that view into the situation enables me to “cheat Death” or at least the view that it must be feared, denied and dreaded.

When I gave a eulogy at Jon’s memorial service, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But with the feeling that he was guiding me, I can tell you that the right words came, and I knocked that one out of the park, for Jon.  Since then I’ve been asked to do that twice more and now know that I have it in me to deliver a tribute that celebrates the life just ended and brings some comfort to those who are grieving.  You might even call it a gift…

So when I received my own early cancer diagnosis last year, I returned to Erin’s book and to help me face it realistically – putting my brain to work in researching treatments, engaging my body with new appreciation to prepare for a mountain climb, and relying on family and friends to keep my spirit strong.  Once it became apparent that I would survive healthy and whole, I knew it was time to “pass on” the gift that they (and cancer) had given me.

And then I saw the Facebook posts letting me know that David Hudgins had recently started a foundation in memory of his sister Catherine to help women facing breast cancer.   And the “Climb for Catherine” came to mind and I reached out to David …and in 12 days we’ve raised $8350 for the Foundation.

Then a few days ago, I read a remarkable thing in the About Us section on the Catherine H Tuck Foundation website. It’s the bio of David Hudgins:

“David Hudgins is a television writer and Executive Producer in Los Angeles.  He has worked on shows including Everwood, Friday Night Lights, Past Life and Parenthood.  Mr. Hudgins was an attorney practicing law in Dallas, Texas, when his sister Dr. Catherine H. Tuck was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Before she passed away from the disease, she encouraged her brother to follow his dreams, which led him to quit his job and move his family to California ten years ago to pursue a writing career.”

I guess I shouldn’t be amazed, but I am. Catherine shared her insight (“don’t wait to do your dreams!”) with David, and despite his grief, he’s trying to share that gift with the rest of us.  And he’s done it through the beautiful and meaningful television programming he produces and through a foundation that pays basic expenses for women struggling to make ends meet during breast cancer treatment.

So if any of this inspires, I hope you’ll join me and our other donors on the Climb for Catherine by making a contribution in any amount.  More to come here, as the adventure unfolds. 

To make a contribution to the Catherine H Tuck Foundation via the Climb for Catherine, click HERE. https://catherinefund.org/Events-News.php

 To read David’s moving tribute to his sister Catherine, click here.

https://catherinefund.org/Catherine.html

To order Living with the End in Mind, click here.

http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Checklist-Fullest-Embracing-Mortality/dp/0609803816

 Info on the Erin Tierney Kramp Encouragement Endowed Scholarship

http://www.foundation.dcccd.edu/page.aspx?pid=482

2013: the message

“Heather, I’m looking at this pathology report and I have to say. . .I’m really surprised. Call me.”

That was a voice mail from my primary care physician that I picked up at about 6:00pm on New Year’s Eve 2012. One year ago today. My doctor had never called me before. I had just spent 2 weeks recovering from routine surgery and was looking forward to going out that night with my husband for the first time since the operation. The Lumineers… Yes!

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But the voicemail baffled me. I played it for my husband and finally concluded that the doctor must be looking at the wrong file. (The power of denial is staggering, isn’t it?) Before the surgery, no one had mentioned that a biopsy would be done.

So I went to the concert and rang in a joyful new year, but in the back of my mind, I kept trying to come up with a better explanation for the voicemail. And then I waited and wondered through New Year’s Day. On Jan. 2, my first morning back at work, I called both my surgeon and my doctor for an explanation, but did not get a call back …it’s busy the first day after the holidays, you know. Finally, I persuaded my doctor’s nurse to fax me the call note she had used and then I started googling terms like “scc” and “T1″ to figure out that I had Stage 1 anal cancer.

Later that day my surgeon called me as I drove home from work. I pulled over to hear her tell me that I would need chemo and radiation. She had gone on vacation just after the operation, received the pathology report but decided to wait until our next appointment to tell me. My doctor was copied on the pathology report and when she saw a date almost 2 weeks past, she assumed I had already received the news. When I asked my surgeon why she didn’t tell me as soon as she knew, she explained (over the phone, of course) that she didn’t want to tell me over the phone!

So the odyssey began . . .oncology appointments, PET/CT scans, more surgeries, conflicting recommendations for treatment, inexplicable insurance claim denials, drug side-effects, weird infections, scouring the internet to find the guru-docs for this type of cancer, studying clinical trials of promising medications. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about anal cancer: only 7,000 people are diagnosed with anal cancer each year and often by the time they have symptoms, it’s too late for good outcomes. My cancer had been found incidentally in a post-op biopsy while the tumor was still very small, which is even more rare. This is the cancer that killed another Texas girl named Farrah Fawcett, but the Stage 1 version has a high survival rate. I met with a naturopath who heard my story, stroked his beard, and then gave me this prescription: “Every morning, get up, go look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You are so lucky.'” Really not a bad spiritual practice for life in general.

Today, one year later, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and wonder. Through a combination of good karma, dumb luck and excellent medical care, it appears that I have emerged intact and with a good prognosis from the terrific docs at the University of California/San Francisco Medical Center. I’ll keep going back for checks, scans and possible surgical procedures every 4 months for the next 4 years, but so far it looks like I will even escape the serious and life-long effects of chemo & radiation in that sensitive area.

And through it all, I have been so fortunate to have the incredible support of my husband Robert — the strongest, sweetest and wisest care-giver a girl could ever ask for — as well as so many friends who have kept me in their prayers and hearts.

As I navigated all of this uncertainty this year, I set my sights on a guidestar to get me to the other side: a long-postponed climb of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. I made a commitment to myself that, if I made it through all of this, I would attempt the climb. This goal helped motivate me to do so many of the “right” things along the way, including losing weight, completely changing my diet, trying new challenges and gaining new mentors and friends. Sometimes health is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

So now as I stand healthy and whole at the opposite shore of this unlikely year, I would like to parlay my crazy good luck into something even better by using this Aconcagua climb as a fundraiser for others fighting cancer. After seeing Facebook posts from the Catherine H Tuck Foundation seeking to raise $100K for those facing breast cancer treatment, I knew I’d found the right beneficiary for the climb.

Catherine was my friend and classmate at the Hockaday School in Dallas. We bonded as redheads and joked that we were twins, but if so I was definitely the “evil twin.” She became a talented doctor and loving mother, but we lost her to breast cancer at just 38. The Foundation, started by her brother David in her memory, provides financial aid directly to women and men facing breast cancer treatment to help them cover basic expenses like rent,utilities and child care. The Foundation has raised half of its goal so far, and my hope is that this climb will serve as the right spark — amongst the Hockaday/St.Mark’s community and beyond — to help them raise the second $50K of their goal and also spread the word about Catherine’s life and the Foundation’s
mission.

So if any of this inspires, I hope you’ll consider giving to the Catherine H. Tuck Foundation and joining this Climb for Catherine however you see fit. You’ll see more Facebook posts and blog posts here as the climb and the year unfolds.

Wishing you love, light and luck for 2014,

Heather