Sunday, April 28, 2013

An Evening for Bridget

I know that I write a lot about fear. I guess that theme kind of comes with the territory in a blog born from a cancer diagnosis. Over a month ago, I wrote a whole blog about the different kinds of fear that cancer has so graciously hurled, or slyly placed, at my mental doorstep.

As I wrote the Fear and Snow blog -- literally, as I was typing it -- I received a group email from Maggie inviting me to a fundraiser at which she was going to be speaking. I admit, when I glanced over a few key words (breast cancer, tragically, lost her battle, 35 years old) I felt like I had fallen through the ice upon which I so softly tread.

I didn't hesitate to purchase tickets for Brian and I to attend the event because, of course, we wanted to support Maggie and hang out with our wonderful mutual friends. When I went to order the tickets, I reread the title of the event -- An Evening for Bridget. I paid, and diverted my eyes away from any more information. I couldn't bear to see the photos of this 35 year old breast cancer victim.

Brian's parents kindly agreed to have us all sleep over in South Boston for the night. They would watch the kids and we would enjoy a night out just about 10 minutes away. The event is at the Seaport Hotel, I told them, so this will be perfect. 

It turns out that diverting your eyes away from information about an event -- like the location -- isn't such a good idea. I had us headed to the Seaport when in fact everyone was gathered at the Boston Harbor Hotel. Nonetheless, on a stunningly beautiful Boston evening, we arrived at the event with some of the nicest people we know.

I quickly learned much more about the purpose of the event -- to raise money for the Young and Strong program lead by Dr. Ann Partridge (Maggie's oncologist) from Dana-Farber. The program focuses on issues faced by women diagnosed with breast cancer while under the age of 40. Despite getting a little nauseous when I inadvertently came across a pamphlet discussing the new study about the 10-year Tamoxifen regimen that I am now on, I was really enjoying the night. I was so happy and honored to meet Maggie's family, Dr. Partridge, and even Kelly Tuthill who MC-ed the event.

(Side note. When I got to talking with Kelly Tuthill on my way to load up on the mac-and-cheese I had been eyeing all night, Brian started up a conversation with her husband. Completely oblivious as to who Kelly was, Brian threw out the generic, So, where are you guys from? Kelly's husband kindly answered that they were from the area; that his wife was the MC of the night and a six-year breast cancer survivor. Brian thought that was great, but still didn't put two and two -- or even one and one -- together until I explained it all to him afterwards. This charming obliviousness was topped by Maggie's story from her speech of her PCP telling her that her tumor was malignant. When Maggie told the crowd that her husband didn't know what "malignant" meant, there was a roar of laughter at Drew's expense. It's always fun to pick on the guys, especially because they're such good sports about it.)

Anyways, I was so excited when it was finally time to hear Maggie speak. I was so sincerely proud of her.

After Kelly Tuthill graciously opened the stage, Bridget's husband, Steve, approached the microphone. A very tall and handsome man, Steve held his youngest daughter, Chloe, in his arms. The way that Chloe clung to her dad was just the way that Annabel would cling to Brian. Chloe was wearing an adorable flowered dress and I'm sure that Annabel would insist on a Bruins, Red Sox, or Patriots jersey, but still, their mannerisms and their soft, light hair were eerily similar.

As you can imagine, I lost it. Aside from the We Bought a Zoo night, the August night in Falmouth, or one or two other breakdowns, I don't think the tears have ever flowed like they did as I watched Steve hold his little girl and talk about Bridget.

I didn't look around because I thought that would just draw attention to myself, but I'm pretty sure that my tears were inappropriate. Selfishly, however, I wasn't even in a mental state to care. I couldn't collect myself. As the photos of this beautiful woman, wife, and mother flashed on the screen behind her husband, I could do nothing to stop the waterfall. I didn't have a tissue so the tears just fell down my cheeks, down my chin, and onto the floor that I was hoping would continue to hold me up. At one point, I whispered to Brian that I may have to go. He said that was fine, that we could go, which is maybe why I decided to stay -- because when I contemplated actually leaving, I remembered why I had come -- to hear Maggie speak. I can do this, I told myself, and despite that I realized how totally self-centered I was being, I couldn't do much more than try to stand up straight and not sob uncontrollably.

If you don't want to hear more about why I was crying, please don't read anymore. If you do, you may want to grab some tissues so that your shirt doesn't look like my red dress did after the speakers were all done -- covered in tears and make-up and maybe a few boogers.

Bridget's story is an absolutely devastating one. With no family history and no warning signs, she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer at age 35. She and Steve already had one beautiful daughter and Bridget was about halfway through her pregnancy with their second. One of Bridget's close friends from Boston College told me last night, By the time they found it, it was everywhere.

Bridget's doctors tried some chemo, hoping for a miracle, but when the chemo destroyed the placenta, they had to take the baby. Chloe was born an "extreme premie" -- just over one pound, and the photo of Bridget in her hospital bed beaming at her tiny new baby was incredible; it was gut-wrenchingly awful and indescribably beautiful, at the very same time. Now that I think of it, I'd describe last night, and maybe my whole battle with cancer, in the very same way.

There is so much more I could say about last night -- about Maggie's inspiring speech and Dr. Partridge's Young and Strong program. About Bridget and her devout faith. About how it felt to get out on the dance floor after shedding so many tears. I will write about about these topics one day, but I'm just not there yet.

To be honest, I sat down here today a bit disappointed in myself when I realized that this blog wasn't going to be about the amazing people who inspire me. I mean seriously, as I stood there sobbing, Maggie waited to deliver a speech about her own breast cancer journey. In fact, Maggie approached the podium just after Dr. Partridge informed the audience of the tragic news that the woman who spoke at this event last year had died just a few weeks prior. Talk about a blow to the gut. As I wiped my nose on Brian's suit coat, trying to hide behind him as if the horror of this news and Bridget's story would lessen, Maggie gathered herself and spoke with grace, humor, and purpose. I guess it's good to have friends much stronger than you are. Except, of course, that you're left to wonder why they hang out with you.

Because right now, I can do nothing more than try to process what absolutely crushed me last night; an emotion that I may not even be able to describe. It was like a bonfire of anger, fear, hope, gratefulness. Reluctant acceptance, and helpless denial. That fire was sparked by feelings of cruel injustice and feelings of sheer amazement at the resiliency all around. It burned at the sight of Bridget's little girl clinging to her father; at the thought of Steve tucking his girls into bed that night. At all of this happening without the woman whose smile lit up every photograph.

Bridget died just three months after she was diagnosed. She never even got to hold Chloe and she saw her youngest child only twice. As I fell asleep last night, listening for planes approaching Logan Airport, I kept coming back to how lucky I am. Because if I had found my cancer when I was 35, I know it would have been far too late.

As I watched Bridget's husband up on the stage last night, as strong as I know Brian would be, I realized that as much as I cherish my time on this Earth, and Lord, trust me, I do, it's not the thought of losing that time that devastates me. What devastates me is what that loss would mean to my family. I guess last night it all hit me that while Bridget was the victim of a horrible disease, it's those that love her -- those that survive -- that are the victims, too.

Doesn't this picture tell a thousand words? What strength and conviction.
Katie, Maggie, me, and Sara. These are some strong and fabulous ladies!

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