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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Birds of Paradise

In the month of June, Relay for Life events pop up like dandelions; they are everywhere. Rita and I were talking with one another at work, she is from our Sault Ste. Marie office and I am located in Sudbury. I had divulged to her that my best friend had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and I felt badly because I couldn’t go to Texas to be there for her when she went for her mastectomy. Rita suggested that was there was something I could do – I could walk in her honour. She said that she had a list of 37 people she was walking for and I knew that one of those people was…Rita. She is a survivor of breast cancer.

Sarah and I headed for the Sault at 8:00 on Friday night. She had been on a field trip that day and spent six hours on a bus. We were getting ready to spend three and one-half more and that day, everything tried to get in my way of going. First it was that the person that was going to take Sarah for the weekend bailed and I couldn’t go until later. Then we headed out and I had forgotten to fill the car up. That’s a big mistake in North Ontario. You don’t head anywhere out of Sudbury without a full tank. So, we were 30 kilometres down the road and had to turn around because I didn’t know where the next gas station was. It seems like I wasn’t supposed to go. Then I thought about my best friend. About how she taught me to go to any lengths and she didn’t stop and wait for a good time; she trudged ahead in spite of common sense and took me in anyway.

We arrived in the Sault at midnight-ish and there were still people on the track. Thank God that the Relays for Life go all night long because I would have missed it. I called Rita from the parking lot and Sarah and I snapped a picture.

I’m here to tell you that Sarah looked I felt. Rita greeted us at the gate and off we went. People were all over the place. She said that it had thinned quite a bit from the beginning of the night because there wasn’t room to pass another person on the track when she started. People were walking six lanes across in clumps. There were the signature candle tributes to people who had passed, who were in treatment, who were just diagnosed – who survived cancer. I remembered from the first RFL event I attended and I asked where the word “Hope” was located. This group had added additional instructions.

We stopped to read the tributes and I found myself biting the insides of my cheeks because there were children’s faces shining back at me.

Rita told me her story as we walked around the track; of her initial diagnosis, of the lumpectomy and of the chemo afterward. She told me about her hair growing back and the divine discovery of a Julia Roberts’-like blonde wig from “Pretty Woman.” What I saw on Rita’s face was sheer determination. She had seen her worst fears realized and walked through them – and past them.

The next morning I woke at the ungodly hour of 10:00 a.m. I don’t think I’ve slept until 10 (seriously) for five or six years, maybe longer. Something was answered for me that night and I slept without dreaming. Rita was already up and in the kitchen making coffee. Sarah was in the shower and we had about fifteen minutes to trade the opening exchanges of spirit that women do. I read her my favourite passage out of Richard Bach’s “Illusions” and she showed me two recent purchases…birds of paradise. Rita loves birds. She writes children’s books. One that she allowed me to see early on was about hummingbirds. Whereas my writing would send children into therapy for years; Rita has a way that she educates while she is providing warm instruction. She is a Mommy to her toes.

Ruth is Rita’s sister and I believe they have one sister in between them, Helga. The baby is Karin. Ruth arrived for coffee and we sat on the back patio in comfy chairs greeting the morning chattering louder (with more laughter) than the birds. Ruth looked over at Rita and said, “You have something on your cheek, here…” and she reached over and brushed whatever it was away. Then Rita said, “You’re really looking good. Getting ready for your daughter’s wedding?” I watched them together and the casual way that they took care of one another without forethought or embarrassment – sisters. I find that when women are gathered together we discuss the things that make everyone uncomfortable – the squishy, emotional things, the secrets. To me, that is a chief strength in women – our stories, our ability to give the knowledge away that we’ve earned and stumbled upon. When Ruth made to leave, I asked if I could take a picture or two of them. The first one was beautiful.

That’s Ruth on the left and Rita on the right. The second one was unexpected and it was more beautiful.

Ladies – this is what we do for one another. We are the birds of paradise.

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