A year ago today, my wife of twenty-one years died of breast cancer that metastasized to her brain. I wrote this story of an earlier event and share it now in tribute.
Donna stood at the back of the stage, holding in her outstretched arms a pale cream scarf embroidered with butterflies. Dark dance shoes covered her feet and a long, white gown covered her thick body. Long dark hair that would have hung from her head had been lost to chemotherapy. Her lower lip trapped the upper as she nervously awaited the start of the music of “Goodbye…Hello” by Pam Thum.
Donna looked at various people in the congregation and smiled as the music started. She remembered the supportive experiences she’d enjoyed, dealing with breast cancer.
When she first heard the song the previous October, Donna knew she had to dance to it at church in April in honor of Sexual Abuse Awareness Month. A childhood of abuse at the hands of poverty-stricken relatives, as well as sexual and emotional abuse from a foster father, had left deep wounds in her spirit.
Down on one knee, Donna looked up and lifted her right hand high while holding the scarf.
However, years of believing in Jesus helped her build a relationship with God the Son. Donna remembered the dream she’d had one night of dancing with Him. She’d talked with Pastor Jerry and her friend, Nancy, leader of the church’s dance team, and the three of them worked out the choreography.
Donna bunched the scarf over her stomach and bent as if in pain.
Late in November, she told her family doctor about a lump that hurt in her left breast. The doctor performed a painful needle biopsy in his office but was unable to extract fluid for analysis. He scheduled a surgeon to make another attempt, which proved inconclusive. The surgeon scheduled surgical removal of the lump and biopsy of a lymph node on January 2. The lump proved malignant but the node was clear; the surgeon had gotten it all.
Donna danced to one forward corner of the stage and held out the scarf toward her older daughter who held a newborn son.
In the midst of a month of uncertainty and fear, Donna’s daughter gave birth to Malachi and the family celebrated the year-end holidays.
Donna danced to the other front corner, moving the scarf in a circle. She held it toward her husband who gripped a quivering lower lip between his teeth.
Two days before Christmas, her husband and friends threw Donna an after-church birthday party. Her husband announced it with a list of Fifty Great Things About Donna. Gifts included fifty suckers, fifty tea bags, and fifty Bible promises.
The day after Christmas, Nancy took her to an overnight rental cabin equipped with an outdoor hot tub. Donna’s friend said later, “I just wanted her to relax and have fun. Not talk about cancer – just be girls together. We played board games, ate TV dinners, watched dumb game shows on TV and just talked sister stuff.”
Throughout all the chemo- and radiation-therapy, Nancy didn’t treat her as a cancer victim but gave Donna her friendship. She took her to eat at a local restaurant and talked normal life. And they continued to plan and practice the dance.
Facing the large cross that hung on the wall behind the stage, Donna lifted her right hand, holding high one end of the scarf. She then lifted the other hand with its offering of material.
Pastor Jerry met with Donna a couple times during her ordeal to go over the dance steps. He later said he could hardly see her performance through his tears.
Donna pranced around, holding the scarf high over her head. She stopped, facing the audience, and lowered the scarf over her head, clutching the sides under her chin.
Anticipating hair loss, Donna and her two daughters met Nancy and another friend at a beauty salon. Mother and daughters had their hair shortened from below their shoulders to their jaw lines.
Once her hair began to fall out, Donna had Nancy shave her head. About the same time, her husband, two sons, and son-in-law shaved their heads. Even Malachi was mostly bald. She cried over her hair loss but quickly started to collect caps and knitted hats. Wigs were not an option.She also decided not to cover her baldness during the dance. Twirling around with the scarf would knock off any head covering.
Donna walked in a circle, both hands down to one side, trailing the scarf behind her.
In June, Donna and son Harrison went with Cynthia from church to Royal Family Kids’ Camp in Pennsylvania to be counselors for neglected and abused children. One little girl asked, “Miss Donna, why do you cut your hair like that?” Donna explained about the chemotherapy. As the girls in her cabin braided the hair of the other counselor, Donna explained again about her lack of hair. When she said she would have it back again next year, the girls got excited about being able to braid it for her. Donna later wrote, “Just like the story of the starfish [thrown back into the sea], it does matter to [those] that were there that week.”
Donna clutched the scarf in the circle of her arms, dancing with it around the stage.
Her favorite doctor was a humorous radiation oncologist, Dung Ba Nguyen, MD, who claimed to be in the Witness Protection Program; the year before he had been a plumber. When Donna asked to have a picture taken with him, he held out his hand. “Five bucks.” At the next appointment, he nearly cried when Donna handed him a printed picture of a five-dollar bill with his face glued on it. He said he would have it framed.
Donna held the scarf in her open hands again, her arms stretched out before her. She swung it behind her back and wrapped herself tightly in its length. Facing the audience, she slowly swung out her right hand then her left, the scarf opening like a cocoon.
At her daughters’ suggestion, Donna started assembling pictures, writings, and photographs for a scrapbook. She finished “My Journey” about the same time she completed her cancer treatments. In it, she chronicled the events reported here and various others. Drawings of butterflies decorated the beginning and the end of the content.
At the end of the song, Donna tossed the scarf behind her, reached back to catch it, and ran off the stage into the waiting arms of her friend. I stood with the rest of the congregation, applauding and shaking with suppressed sobs. Then I went back and wrapped my arms around my wife and her friend.