Remembering my friend Elizabeth today on what would have been her 56th birthday. That makes eight birthdays since she has been gone.
The photographs in the header of this page are from a trip we took in 1982 to Fripp Island, South Carolina. We went out at sunset to take some glamour shots, I guess. My memory is vague. It was after we’d graduated from high school. Before we’d started college. Before we had any idea what our lives would be like in the future. Before we had even started thinking of a future beyond the four years of college.
In the photo at the bottom of the page, the top bracelet is a now-vintage wrist band from the 2007 Komen 60-mile 3-Day Walk that Elizabeth and I did together to celebrate her 5th year cancer-free from what would turn out to be only her first cancer. The bracelet is nearly white, faded from its original pink, after months of sun on my wrist as I trained for the walk and then for the actual 60 miles of the event itself in humid, 90 to 100 degree Boston summer heat.
The middle bracelet is one my daughter had made for me with Elizabeth’s own handwriting etched into the metal. Sometime in the late 1980s, Elizabeth had signed a letter to me with a very uncharacteristic closing: “Always, always with you, Elizabeth.” She had never used this signature before, and she never did again. Finding this letter shortly before her memorial service, I was comforted by her closing, as if she had somehow sent a message across time to reassure me of her presence even now. Speaking at her memorial service, I borrowed words from a song by Cheryl Wheeler: “We’re just bereft, not deserted.” Elizabeth left those of us who loved her with so much of herself.
The bottom bracelet is vibrant pink, a take-away from an event last year to raise money and awareness for a cure for breast cancer in Elizabeth’s memory. Each August since her death, a team of bike riders composed of family and friends has taken to the roads around Boston in the Pan-Mass Challenge to raise funds for the endowment in her name at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The initial “Team Elizabeth” was three riders, each of whom was contemporary in age with Elizabeth or older. These days, the team has grown to as many 21 cyclists, all from the generation of Elizabeth’s two sons. The twenty-something-year-olds have made the ride and the cause their own, now calling themselves “Team E,” for short. This passing of the torch is the most fitting and beautiful evidence of Elizabeth’s continuing spirit in the world that I can imagine.
This year, the Pan-Mass Challenge will be virtual, shifting plans like so many other events have done, so that participants and communities are kept safe in the Covid-19 pandemic. In this unprecedented time, many are grieving new losses that the pandemic has caused. There are also those who have lost loved ones from causes other than Covid, and none are able to gather to mourn and remember. A sense of collective grief seems to be swirling around us all.
Grief has been a mighty teacher for me in the last eight years, and while I cannot say that I am grateful for the opportunity to walk through this grief, I can say that I am grateful every day for the continuing love and presence I feel from Elizabeth through my memories of our 31 years of earthly time together. I recently heard someone say that “grief is just love with no place to go.” It is a touching sentiment that can feel very true to me in moments of sadness. Yet, I wonder if there is a flip-side to it, as well. Love always has someplace to go, doesn’t it? Maybe grief just reminds us that when we are ready, we can choose where and how to send the love that is underneath to someone else who needs it.
This quote, one of Elizabeth’s favorites, was read at her memorial service. I take it as my marching orders from her when I need little guidance on what to do with my grief and how to use the love that is underneath it.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson*
*Recently, I learned that a very similar version of these words was published earlier than Emerson’s by Bessie E. Stanley of Springfield, Illinois—a literary mystery uncovered that Elizabeth would have loved. I have kept Emerson as the cited source because it is his final wording that I used.
I have two pairs of pink crocs in my closet. One pair is mine. One belongs to one of my closest friends. I have my friend’s pair because I brought them home with me last year when I returned from her memorial service. She died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 48. But I still think of the shoes as hers, not mine.
A fellow walker saw our feet sticking out of our tent together and said, “I see a cute picture!” Grateful she took it for us.
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.
Every song has a story. But sometimes you don’t know the full story until the song itself shows you. Even if you wrote the song yourself.
Long plagued by stage fright when it comes to singing, I was preparing to do so for the first time in front of an audience for an evening of my own songs and stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of speaking to an audience; I love that part. It’s the singing that makes me feel vulnerable.
As I practiced and prepared, I kept picturing myself as the American Idol contestant who warbles embarrassingly off-key as the judges fidget. Every vulnerability I’d ever felt seemed to be right on the surface of my skin. Yet, as I was fending off my inner demons, I found a song forming in my mind that became a lifeline out of the turmoil. Actually, it felt more like a secret mantra; a mere five lines that gave me enormous comfort and calm.
One of my closest friends, who knew me well enough to realize how challenging this first public singing performance would feel for me, asked if she could fly out from her home in Boston to mine in Minneapolis to attend. “If it makes you more nervous, I won’t come,” she said. “Please come,” I replied.
The morning of the performance, I sang this new song for her. Simple, a capella. It was much too new to add to my set list, but I truly believed it had come to me so that I’d feel the confidence and courage I needed in order to sing for people that evening. What I didn’t know yet was that it would be several more years before I would realize the song’s true purpose: it was meant to be a lullaby for my friend.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time, we all assumed she would undergo treatment and put the disease behind her again. The day after she learned the diagnosis was terminal, she told me she’d had a sleepless night. She lay awake, she said, and envisioned every possible outcome— from the one where she would defy the odds and live to be 100 to the one where I would sing “Where the Angels Live” at her memorial service.
I came to see her when she returned home from the hospital for the last time and began hospice care. The time between her diagnosis and this visit was shorter than any of us would have liked. And that’s the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. But the time was also filled with heart-rending moments of grace, of touching poignancy, of riotous laughter, of honesty and, most of all, love.
She told me a few months before she died that she was “banking memories” for herself and for everyone she loved, consciously making time for moments together that would sustain her and the rest of us through her passing. She was filling the well, she said.
I did sing for her at her memorial service. And I brought my oldest child, her goddaughter, to sing with me. The song deserved harmonies. My ukulele was the simple accompaniment, though I was fairly certain that the people in the back of the church might not even hear it. The important part, I knew, was the voices.
I told the overflowing crowd of her family, friends and colleagues that we all had a job to do together. And then I shared the promise that I had made to her. The night before I left her for the last time, she had wanted to discuss her memorial service. I promised her again that I would sing, but told her that I also planned to ask everyone sing with me. In singing together, I’d said, we’d not only help ourselves begin to heal but our voices in unison would lift the song to the high heavens as a lullaby for her.
On a fall day that began with rain and ended with the sun peeking out from the clouds, in a quaint New England church, I kept my promise to my friend. And, in doing so, I realized the true purpose of my song. I felt it in my bones. I knew it in my heart. I heard it in all the voices that joined together to sing with my daughter and me. The well is deep; there is no limit to love.
∞ ∞ ∞
Where the Angels Live
Can you feel the space between heartbeat and breath?
Click this link for the audio version of the narrative, if you’d like to hear the story told, rather than read it.
Though I recorded a version of “Where the Angels Live” in studio with full piano and guitar accompaniment, I felt it was important to also create the simple, spare lullaby version that my daughter and I sang at my friend’s memorial service. Recorded at home, I paired the song with nature photographs by J. Marion Brown in a video to honor the memory of my dear friend.
The Elizabeth Alling Sewall Endowment Fund was established at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to support research to help find a cure for breast cancer. If you’d like to learn more about this worthy cause, please visit this site, which also tells more about Elizabeth’s life.
It’s never too late to start; it’s never too early to begin.
One of my closest friends is living with terminal cancer. I selected the verb very consciously here, and “living” is exactly what I mean. As we talked the other day about the latest developments in her treatment plan, she said, “I no longer look at this as a journey or a battle. I am simply living my life.”
My friendship with Elizabeth has been a long and beautiful dance of conversation, back and forth, between the two of us. We both love words. We choose them carefully and aren’t afraid to use them to the fullest extent needed. But we don’t toss them around lightly, either. In high school, my parents used to say that we talked so fast they could hardly understand us. We’ve never been at a loss for things to say to one another. Yet, we are also very comfortable sharing silence.
Early on, we dubbed our most cherished conversations as “1:00 a.m. chats,” named after the hour at which we seemed to get to the root of whatever story, fear, hope or secret most needed sharing. Over our 31 years of friendship, I couldn’t even begin to guess how many of these chats we’ve had.
We live 1,424 miles apart now (yes, I checked on google maps), making our face to face conversations far less frequent than in our younger years when we were just down the road from one another. We do visit periodically, but in the interim we are adept at substituting phone and text messages to keep our conversation ever present. When Elizabeth learned last year that her cancer had metastasized, those texts and phone calls began to feel like a life line. We have chatted during blood transfusions and chemo. We have texted during pedicures and our kids’ sporting events.
Not too long ago, we met in Northern California for a weekend away together. The small house we rented had a lovely deck with a hot tub overlooking a beautiful olive orchard. Each night after dinner, we sat in the hot tub watching the moon rise and talking. On our last night, we turned on a digital recorder and let it run as we talked. Back and forth, with candor and laughter, we narrated the story of how we met— the history of our friendship— for our kids, we said, but in truth mostly for ourselves.
Meandering, as we always do, to wherever the conversation leads us, Elizabeth began to tell me of a recent morning when her husband was getting up before sunrise to hike a trail in the Blue Hills near their home in Massachusetts. Tired, she was just about to wish him a happy hike when she changed her mind and decided to join him. She told me the sunrise had been gorgeous that morning and the moment with her husband at the trail’s summit an irreplaceable memory now, both for her and for him. She looked at me incredulously and said, “Why did I even think twice before deciding to go? Why would I want to miss that moment?”
In the dance of conversation, Elizabeth had unearthed an important question, and we both knew it. Why miss the moment? We actually repeated it several times as we sat in the hot tub, as if imprinting it on our brains. After all, it’s not easy to break habits of routine or responsibility. So we said it to one another almost like a chant: “Why miss the moment? Why miss the moment?” Under the full moon and star-filled sky, everything seemed so obvious and clear.
It’s never too late to start; it’s never too early to begin. So why miss the moment?
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.