This blog post started in my mind over a week ago. I was struck then with the memory of a dear friend while I was folding clothes.
I came upon a pair of running tights I bought recently that were made by Under Armor and have the pink breast cancer ribbon on them. I thought I might wear them at the upcoming Champions of Hope race in Dothan to raise money for cancer research depending on the weather. It made me think of my friend Irene.
I met Irene when I was a kid, honestly I’m not sure how old because it feels like I always knew her. She was the thirty-something single lady who lived across the street from us with her dad. We always waved and her dad would give my older brothers ice cream every now and then but that was the extent of the earlier friendship. After her father passed away, Irene stayed in the house and eventually bought a dog, a little white bichon frise named Powder Puff. I fell in love with that dog and it drew me to Irene, so we became friends. She tolerated me, tried to teach me to sew (unsuccessfully but really, it is just not one of my talents), kept me busy by giving me math problems, playing board games with me and sometimes we cleaned together between sips of saspirilla. From Staten Island, she had a wit and spunk about her and could dish out the sass as well as take it. She went on amazing trips and always brought something back for me and Liz. She loved to laugh and tell stories. Her stories were the best.
Irene always told me she was 18. And I believed her.
When I was 10, Irene was diagnosed with breast cancer. It happened pretty quickly and my parents and Irene shielded me from much of the details. I don’t recall her being extremely ill. She was always an upbeat and positive woman, full of life. She had a mastectomy, and shortly after her treatments were finished she became engaged to a man she had dated on and off for several decades. They were married when I was 12 and my best friend, Liz, and I were her Jr. Bridesmaids. What an experience that was for a kid. Irene sewed our dresses herself.
My family moved away that next year and I only saw Irene a handful of times after that. Liz kept me updated as to how she was doing and I would call and catch up with Irene from time to time. But life as a teenager kept me busy and in trouble, so I didn’t make the time I now wish I had.
When I was 21, I married the most amazing man ever. I had been in quite a few weddings up to that point, and I loved dearly the girlfriends I had made. But I felt strongly about having just 2 people in my wedding party, as we were also having it in a tiny church. Irene and Liz. I wanted to look back at those pictures and be just as close to the people in my pictures later in life as I was on that day. Liz has been my best friend since we were 6 months old (we still talk about once a month). It being a busy day I hardly noticed how gaunt Irene had become and she is simply beaming beautifully in all of the photos.
Irene battled the cancer on and off for about 10 years total. I never really knew how sick she was, as she always managed to be smiling, even when she was walking with a cane and she rarely talked about her illness. Her cancer had spread to her bones and eventually everywhere else and I remember her telling me one night on the phone that it would be easier for her to tell me now where the cancer was not, rather than where it was.
We lost Irene on August 28, 2002. I was totally unprepared for it. I had only lost my Mom’s parents at that point in my life, and while I definitely mourned those losses, I was closer to Irene than anyone else I had lost in my lifetime. My grandparents had lived so far away and she had been just across the street. I remember being upset that she hadn’t told me how poorly she was doing; but that was her way. I didn’t have my daughter until December 2003. While Irene could not have known when we were planning to start a family, she began cross stitching bibs for my baby. I have 2 finished and 1 half finished bib in a frame that her best friend sent me after she passed.
I share all of this with you to honor the memory of my beautiful friend, Irene. She fought her cancer with dignity and strength. She smiled in spite of her pain and pressed on in spite of her diagnosis. She had to have known her prognosis but she lived life in spite of that. And she fought every day.
When I run that race tomorrow, she will be heavy on my heart and steady in my mind.
When it gets tough going up the incredibly hilly course and my lungs are screaming and legs begging me to stop I’m going to remember that I CAN keep on going.
Because I’m sure Irene, along with others who have lost their lives to cancer, like the my friend's sister, the amazing and inspiring Shannon, would have given anything to keep on going, to keep on living, to keep on fighting. They don’t have the choice to push through the pain anymore. I do.
And as long as I physically can, I plan to do just that.
How can we glean inspiration from suffering? Ask yourself this question.
Why waste time not living your life when so many have or had less years to live than you?
Get out there and do something for your health. You only get one time around at this living thing. One body, one temple to treat well. Every choice is one that may extend your life or shorten it. Don’t waste it. I’m sure none of these warriors who have gone before us would want that for you.
This run is for you, my dear friend. I love you and miss you, Irene Garbarini-Kinsella.