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Thursday, May 27, 2010

A visit from a colleague

Yesterday afternoon at work we got a visit from a colleague who is currently on sick leave.  Actually, it's long term disabililty. She has terminal cancer.

Marie is in her late forties.  She is a vibrant woman, a workaholic with a great sense of humor and a zest for life.  Several months ago (which seems like only days ago), Marie had been complaining about headaches.  Constant headaches.  She didn't look good and was always tired, which was unusual for her. A friend and I were standing just outside my office one day and Marie was heading down the hall toward us.  She was swaying, almost walking into the wall.  We were concerned and asked if she was okay.  She wasn't.  She told us that she had been feeling dizzy all the time and was having problems with hand-eye coordination and depth perception.  Her husband had to help get her dressed because she couldn't fasten her buttons.  Go to the doctor!  We exclaimed.  She explained that she had called and made an appointment for the following week.  We expressed our concern and urged her to call again or just go to the Emergency.  She wouldn't hear of it.  She had deadlines that had to be met.  Senior Management was depending on her.  I just shook my head at her and told her she was crazy.

The next week we got the news.  At first the doctor thought she might have a brain aneurysm.  He sent her to the hospital right away.  They soon discovered that it was a brain tumor.  She went through a number of tests and scans and was booked for surgery to remove it.  She remained in good spirits and gave us regular updates by phone.  It turned out that the tumor was cancerous and they were not able to remove all of it.  It was terminal.  I felt so sick when I heard the news.  I had just been standing here talking to her, and (what felt like) the next day I find out she is going to die.  It was so surreal.

Marie's illness was announced at a staff meeting, and we were told that she was keeping a positive attitude, and if we talked to her we were to remain positive as well.  I couldn't imagine staying positive.  I truly don't know what I would do if I got that kind of news.

It has been a couple of months and she has started chemotherapy and radiation.  She just got back from a Caribbean cruise and decided to pay us all a visit.  I got the news that she was here and as I turned the corner I saw everyone gathered around her.  She was bald but wore a beautiful scarf on her head.  She was sitting on a chair in the hallway with her wheelchair sitting nearby.  She looked beautiful.  Her makeup was perfectly done.  She wore nice clothes and jewelery.  She had strappy fuschia sandals with matching toenail polish and wore ankle bracelets and a toe ring.  She was smiling and laughing and cracking jokes.  Same old Marie.  She even cracked some pretty morbid jokes about death.  She talked about how surprised she is of herself.  That she doesn't feel depressed or mad. When she first got the news, she was told that she had only a few weeks to live.  It then changed to several months.  And now doctors tell her that she will most likely live for a year and a half.  She feels blessed to have that much time left.  She feels happy and she wants to enjoy every day of her life.  She said that nobody knows how long they have here on this earth.  Any one of us could walk outside and get hit by a bus.  She told us to live every day like it's our last.  To truly appreciate the things and people that we love.  She talked about her cruise, her shopping trips, her plans to move into a new bungalow.  She seemed happy and was full of energy.  We all laughed and smiled and wished her well when she was ready to leave.

I went back to my office and I cried.  What an amazing woman.  She has been given this news and is making the best of it.  Living life to the fullest.  I don't know if I could be that strong.  I don't think I would be.  I can't imagine leaving my husband, children, parents.  All of my friends and family.  It's not fathomable.  Yet it could happen.  I don't think anyone is ever ready to receive news that they will die, but I am amazed and inspired by people who are as positive as Marie.  It makes me realize that my life is really not so bad.  It's awesome, actually!  Yesterday I was reminded just how lucky I am to have my health and my family.  Yesterday I was inspired.


  1. I'm sitting here in a puddle of tears after reading this... what an incredible woman, such an inspiration. Than you so much for sharing her story here, passing along the goodness.

  2. She's been on my mind so much... especially since her visit yesterday. I just had to write about her. She really is incredible.

  3. What an inspiration! Thank you for sharing Marie's story. A dear friend's uncle died of a brain tumor a few years ago. In some ways, his family saw it as a blessing - a reason to go out and make BIG memories. And they did. Still, I know my time is limited, but I don't want to be told that.

  4. It's definitely the best attitude to have... just not sure if I'd be able to do it. I hope I never have to find out!

  5. Knowing you are at death's door is morbid and depressing and many people probably choose to wallow in it, because really, how can anyone recover from that kind of news?

    But then there are others like Marie who, upon receiving such news, know that their time is limited, that they don't have all week/month/year to wait to do that something they've always wanted to do and so they do it. And they really, really live their life.

    In a way, as scary and sad as death is, at least she gets the chance to make the wrongs right, and the right absolutely wonderful.

  6. Yes, it's so wonderful that she can look at things that way. Just live her life - however much she has left - to the fullest.

    I was thinking that maybe it's different for me (and most of us here) because I have young children. She has stepkids who are grown and have their own families. My worst fear of dying is leaving my kids with no mommy. She doesn't have to worry about leaving any children behind. Of course she will leave behind many loved ones, but not children who depend on her. I think that's what would make it so difficult for me.

  7. That is amazing. And I think that if you were faced with it, you may surprise yourself. I'm sure that she wouldn't have thought that amount of grace was in her either. (And I'd guess that she has some crying days too.)
    It is a good reminder to me to not be so grouchy about what I have. So thanks.

  8. It was certainly a great reminder for me, too.

    You're right - we don't know how strong we really are until we're hit with something. Marie did say that her attitude surprised even herself, so I guess anything's possible!

    Thanks for your comment, Alex!

  9. Oh Shannon, what a story you tell here. Poignant, and so full of important lessons. For some reason I'm struck by how observant you were of her when she came in to visit. It touched me, you really showed the living part of this whole terrible situation. And I get it, I get how you feel. I'm learning some important lessons about this myself (especially in the wake of my dad's news). My question is, how do we hold on to that feeling, that feeling of knowing how good we have it.

  10. Such a good question! Why does it take events such as this for us to realize how wonderful our lives are? To appreciate the little things? We have those thankful moments but then they pass. I don't know how we hold on to those good feelings. I wish I had the answer.

  11. You just never know, do you? And the ironic part is, it's so hard to truly appreciate every moment until you get terrible news like Marie's. What an inspiration (and an inspirational post).

  12. Yes, it definitely is hard to do, Stacia. Thanks very much for your comment!