Last Leaf on the Tree
On the beauty of unconditional love.
I have two pairs of pink crocs in my closet. One is mine; the other belongs to one of my closest friends. I have her pair because I brought them home with me when I returned from her memorial service. She died of metastatic breast cancer at 48.
I don’t know why I wanted her shoes. I just did. She’d bought us matching pairs in 2007 when we walked the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day together in Boston, her hometown. They were to be respite for our feet at the end of 20 miles walking each day. That year marked her fifth year cancer-free from when she was first diagnosed. We wanted to celebrate, but even more so we wanted to honor the occasion with an act of endurance, strength and perseverance. Walking 60 miles in three days and raising money for a cure for breast cancer seemed like just the right thing to do.
When I first got home with her shoes, I tried them on. They still had remnants of sand in them from Martha’s Vineyard, one of her happy places and where she’d been just a month before she died. I took the crocs off as soon as I’d put them on. I didn’t belong in her shoes. Yet, having them side by side with my own pink crocs has been a secret comfort in the months since she passed away.
The news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday rattled me. I guess it rattled us all, as senseless, tragic and heartbreaking acts always do. Out of longstanding habit, I had the urge all Monday afternoon to text my friend. We would have traded notes and shared our shock. I would have sought reassurance that she and her family were alright. I felt her absence even more keenly than usual, and was deeply saddened as I thought about how many families would be shaken by trauma and loss from the bombings.
I have spent a fair amount of time in Boston over the years, both before and after the 3-Day Walk, and have always been fond of the city. I’ve collected a lot of good memories there. But covering 60 miles on foot through its streets and communities put it right smack dab in the center of my heart in a way that was altogether more personal and permanent. From the police officers in every town who didn’t just provide logistical support but smiled with kind words, their own stories, funny jokes and moral support, to the throngs of cheering crowds along the route, there’s just something special about Boston. I’ve walked the 3-Day two more times since in my own hometown and I mean no offense whatsoever to the Twin Cities, but no one cheers like Bostonians. It makes me think that the hearty, New England, patriot soul of the city gives its inhabitants an especially deep reverence for acts of endurance, strength and perseverance.
In my sadness on Monday evening, I happened to see the pink crocs in my closet. Just seeing them made me feel comforted, so I decided to put them on. I grabbed what I thought were mine, yet when I tried to slip into them, I realized I’d gotten two left shoes. I pulled out the remaining two thinking I could quickly sort out which was which. I remembered my friend’s shoes as having been far less scuffed and worn than my own and, of course, there was the tell-tale sand that would be definitive proof. Yet, turning the shoes over and over, I couldn’t tell which pair was which. Both are the same size and though the particulars of the scuffs were different, the amount of wear was just the same. The Martha’s Vineyard sand must have long since migrated to my closet floor.
Interestingly, instead of feeling sad, I was actually even more comforted by the fact that our shoes were now indistinguishable. I put on a left and a right and hoped that by luck I had chosen one of each of our pairs.
At the close of each 3-Day, there is a tradition that all walkers who have not been through cancer to take off a shoe and kneel in salute as those walkers who have been through cancer march into the event’s closing ceremonies. It is a small and symbolic way to honor the endurance, strength and perseverance of those who have been through the disease. Each time I have been a part of this ceremony, I have been moved to tears. But the one I remember most and hold closest to my heart was that first time in Boston.
So, Boston, I hope you can see me. Just like in the faded clipping I saved from the font page of The Globe six years ago, I am kneeling on the ground and raising one pink croc high in air, waving it proudly for you in salute and solidarity. We’re all in this together.
In 2002, one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. In her late thirties, with a wonderful spouse and two young sons, I watched as she navigated surgery, chemo and radiation, as so many women do. Beyond the grueling aspects of treatment itself, there was the enormous heart space to travel: How do you talk to your kids about having cancer? How do you maintain your closest relationships when you are going through something most of those around you can’t understand first-hand? Bigger, yet, how do you face your own mortality?
My friend and I live more than 1,000 miles apart. When you’re that far away, you can’t pitch in to do the things that are most tangible– picking up the kids from school, running errands, making dinners. Yet, I desperately wanted to give her my support and love. So I went to the archive of our past history together– old letters I had saved from our decades of friendship, beginning in high school, spanning through college and our early years in the work world, to getting married and having children.
Each week, I sent her a package containing one year’s worth of her letters to me, beginning in 1980 and ending in 2000. I marveled that we had traded letters in every single one of those years. I was awestruck by the depth of what we shared with one another. I lamented the fact that we slowly stopped writing real letters with the advent of email and arrival of our children. I copied each letter (no, i didn’t part with the originals!) and wrote commentaries in the margins about our escapades. I laughed and cried as I revisited memories and hoped that they would be a good distraction for her after each weekly chemo treatment.
My tiny window into her world during that year made a huge impression on me. Since then, so many more of my friends have been diagnosed. Gradually, I have become more and more involved in the cause to help find a cure for breast cancer and support women going through it.
I always knew that someday I wanted to tell the story I had witnessed. Yet, often, the stories that are closest to our heart are the most difficult to express. It wasn’t until I saw a neighbor of mine– newly diagnosed and on a walk after chemo– that the words to this story came tumbling out. Though it is written specifically about women and breast cancer, the message applies to any major life challenge. Every picture and every journal entry is from a woman who has been through it. More than 30 women shared their private moments and thoughts to offer comfort to those currently on the path. . . one step, one true step, at a time.