*Warning: mention of cancer in story
My daughter and I sat on the hard bench. She was in her sophomore year of high school, yet she still held my hand as we sat there together. We were both lost in our own thoughts. Watching. Staring. Fascinated by the two girls in front of us who were moving so gracefully. They wore simple black dresses that seemed to make their dance appear ever more elegant as they moved to the music. I couldn’t tell you the tune. It was melancholy and peaceful and sweet. Just like the girls who were dancing. One of the girls was the same age as my daughter, the other girl, the girl’s sister, was a few years older than her. Mary and Willa.
Mary and Willa were dancing to their mom’s favorite song. Laurie had paid for years of dance lessons for her daughters. As well as any sport that the girls took on. Mary excelled at lacrosse. Willa excelled on the volleyball court and in the pool. Laurie attended all of their events with enthusiasm and a loud voice. Not all of the parents appreciated Laurie’s sense of humor or her intensiveness. For her, if you were going to show up, you should give 100% or not show up at all. And she let you know it. She expected nothing less than the best for her children and from her children. Period.
Laurie and I met when she retired from her first job. She had made a career out of working Nuclear Plants. Her last job landed her in Fribitzville and this is where she decided to stay. She bought a handyman’s special to turn into her permanent home. After living in that house for a few minutes she decided that what that house really needed wasn’t repairs and reconstruction - although it really did - was children.
She had never taken the time or interest in finding Mr. Right, as there were so many Mr. Wrongs out there she would say. So she went the adoption route. First she found Mary in China. Mary was a toddler and a handful and just what Laurie was needing. Her face lit up each time she was asked about how Mary was. “Oh, Mary climbed up on my lap and wanted to read another book today!” She would exclaim quite frequently. Mary started reading before she went to school. She became Valedictorian of her graduating high school class. You never saw a more proud, yet humble mother. Laurie said, “Don’t look at me, Mary did all the work!”
When Mary reached eight years of age she gained a little sister, Willa. Willa was already five years old and had spent her whole life in an orphanage. She didn’t speak a word of English. She barely spoke at all. And, she couldn’t walk. She had a tiny wheelchair that she used to move about. Laurie took this child in and loved her 100%. She took her to all the best doctors she could find to fix Willa’s hips. Over the years it took numerous surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy to help Willa. Laurie would stop at nothing to help her daughter.
So Laurie and I met when she came to work as a teacher’s aide at the school where I also work. We connected as we are both transplants to the area and we could easily relate to each other. We don’t speak the local lingo that is thrown around the faculty lounge.
“Hey do you remember hanging out with John Doe?”
or “Do you remember when Patty Sue fell off the balcony of the Glod?”
and “Is IDK still on the corner where WTH lives?”
or my personal favorite, “You know so and so, well…”
Actually, no I don’t know so and so, thank you very much.
Needless to say, we were often left out of most conversations. We would stare at one another across the room and be thinking the same thing: what the actual fuck. Do they even know how exclusive they are?
Laurie and I both shared another common denominator. We both had daughters. As fate would have it, my middle daughter was actually in the same grade as Willa. They had gone all through elementary school together. I had seen Laurie at the games and concerts but hadn’t really gotten to know her until she came to work at my school. We soon became friends.
We sat with one another at games and swapped rides for practices. My daughter and her daughter have been friends since Kindergarten and couldn’t figure out why it took so long for us to get our act together. Kids are always so perceptive.
Then when our girls were in middle school, Laurie received terrible news. Breast cancer. She took what seemed like very little time off for treatment and then bounced right back to work. She didn’t want to slow down ever. She worked right through all of her chemo treatments, even while losing her hair. She eventually wore a purple bandanna to work every day to cover up, what she called, her ugly noggin. Purple being her favorite color. She pushed right though and beat the cancer and her hair grew back to its former grey glory. She said she preferred the bald.
The house that I mentioned earlier? The fixer-upper? The one that needed loads of repairs and reconstruction? With all the adoption money, surgeries, tuition, medical, car, you know, life expenses, there just never seemed to be enough money to go into the house. When Laurie finally saved enough money to fix up the bathroom so that the door would finally properly shut, she asked the girls. By now Willa was in high school and Mary had recently graduated. She asked the girls, “Should I fix the bathroom or do we go to Hawaii?”
I can still picture the tanned Laurie standing in the faculty lounge telling me all about how the girls chose Hawaii. And how much fun they had. She is wearing a lei and talking about the luau they went to where the girls danced in the sand.
The song ends and the girls go to sit with their aunt and uncle on the other side of us. They hide their faces. I don’t blame them. But part of me, the part that hears Laurie’s voice, is saying, “Now girls, be proud! Look at the crowd and smile!”
Mary sits for a moment to collect herself and then walks up on the altar to the pulpit to begin speaking.
“My mom was a remarkable woman…”
My daughter gives my hand three quick squeezes. I know what she is thinking. I’m thinking about it too. This could have been me. This could be me. Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Laurie was my rock during this. She was my go-to person. She gave me advice and wisdom and humor. She knew exactly what to say and how to say it at the right time. I am healthy and cancer free today, but will it stay away? Laurie’s cancer didn't. Hers came back. Hers came back and it took her. She was here one day and the next I was getting a phone call telling me she was gone. She knew she was leaving, that was the last time I visited her in the hospital. She was still giving me pearls of wisdom. She will always be my hero. She was brave and strong right up to the finish line.
“Life is short, she said, eat the chocolate.”
But I think I will always remember her as, “The girls chose Hawaii.”