“Do Me a Favor. Tell Other People My Story.”
This morning I learned of the passing of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Paula Beck. Paula and I have been friends for 31 years, for most of our lives. I am in shock. I am at a loss as to how to absorb this reality. I thought I’d be better prepared for this, I am woefully unprepared for this.
Paula was diagnosed with breast cancer while she was working on her social work degree, her first day of chemo was the day of her graduation ceremony. I saw her when I went home last summer. By that time she’d had a double mastectomy and many rounds of chemo but she was cancer free. We sat in the backyard and talked with my bonus mom about what she wanted to do next. She was still tired, and recovering, but she was excited about the possibility of finding a job, doing something she was passionate about, helping people. Then the heartbreaking news came that her cancer had spread. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail because her story is not mine to tell — that story belongs to her beautiful daughters and her partner of many years.
But I do want to pass something on, because Paula felt that her story was bigger than her, that people could learn from her battle with cancer. In January, Paula and I discussed her having a celebration of life. She told me she hated the idea of a traditional funeral — a sad event she would not be there for, to see everyone she loved. Rather, she wanted a happy day that was true to who she was, a joyful event. It turned into even more than that. It was a fundraiser for her family, an awareness raiser about breast cancer, and so many people attended, donated, came from all over to celebrate Paula. The mantra of the day was “Why? Because we love you, Paula!” When Paula got up to speak she was so her — smiling, laughing, showing profound gratitude for the love that surrounded her. But she also took the opportunity to pass on a bigger message and I want to pass her message on now
One more thing that I want to say that’s very important. I was diagnosed with this, and I maybe didn’t do my breast self-test enough. I was in my early forties, I thought I was too young, I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. And it did. And I wasn’t detected on a mammogram. I had a six centimeter tumor in my right breast. And I want you all to know, you’re your own best advocate. There’s no shame in feeling your own body and knowing your body. It could save your life, I could be in a different predicament than I am if I had not thought that it wouldn’t happen to me, I was so young, ya know, if I would have caught it sooner. But I have a very aggressive cancer … and the tumor was very large. And, now, this is where I’m at. But it’s not too late, there’s a whole bunch of people out here, and you have to know your body … Do me a favor. Tell other people my story. And tell them to do their own breast self-awareness checks and know their body. Because I don’t want this to go on and hurt other people the way it has hurt me and my family. So please do me that favor and share it with others and make sure you are all doing this to stop cancer, or at least minimize the impact and effect it has on other people. So, I love you all and thank you. I’m getting off this damn microphone now.
Because that was Paula. Even exhausted, even in pain, even going through something so difficult, she thought of other people, and how she could help them. Paula gave so many gifts to this world — her two beautiful daughters, her kindness, her empathy, her laughter, her smile, her example of profound courage in the face of something so painful, her reverence for nature, her absolute sincerity in how she interacted with everyone around her. She was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever had the privilege to know and love.
This was a quote that Paula chose to go on a portrait our incredibly talented friend, Tina, drew of Paula:
It was just so Paula to choose that quote, to think of the importance of how we treat others first and foremost.
This is a copy of the portrait, the original was sold in the silent auction at Paula’s celebration of life:
That’s Paula — always smiling, always beautiful, always lighting up a room and impacting everyone she ever met. I have so many amazing memories of Paula, most of them are just the everyday things that make up a childhood — giggling, passing notes in class, hanging out, doing things we shouldn’t have done, having A LOT of fun together. One summer Paula joined my family, of which she was a cherished member by this time, on an extended trip to Mexico. She’d never been out of the country and she was beyond excited. A lot happened that summer — we spent hours on the beach together, we hung out with friends I’d made the year before who also became her friends, she got stung by bullet ants, she fell in love. While we spent most of that trip just outside the tiny town of Chelem we also went to Chichen Itza. I remember climbing El Castillo with Paula. Going up was fine but she refused to come down because, once you get up there, the height of the great pyramid is overwhelming. She sat on the top and wouldn’t budge, she told me I’d have to bring in a helicopter because that was the only way she’d get back to the ground. The smile that was usually a permanent fixture on her face had transformed into a stubborn scowl. But we coaxed her down, bit by bit, and laughed once we were on terra firma again. So many memories.
I’m in shock, vacillating wildly between being numb and sobbing. When I found out last night that Paula’s cancer had spread to her brain I told Eric that I thought I’d been prepared, as much as humanly possible, to have to say goodbye. But I realized that I wasn’t. And the reality of saying goodbye was very different from the hypothetical of saying goodbye. And when I found out this morning that she had passed I began to shake and cry, completely caught off guard. Woefully unprepared. I am running the gamut of emotions, but I’m only feeling a tiny portion of each, I guess shock is a gift in that way. I’m grateful Paula is no longer in pain. I’m incredibly angry that she had to fight the battle she fought, and that she was taken far too soon. I feel blessed for having had her in my life. My heart hurts for her family. And I know that this is only the beginning, because grief is a process and you never get over it, you just make room for it in your life.
At the beginning of the year Eric and I signed up for a running challenge, to run 2,015 miles in 2015 as a team. After discussing it we decided we wanted to dedicate our miles to Paula. Which might sound trivial to some but, to us, running is sacred. And Paula got that. When I told her what we wanted to do she was so touched, because she knows what running means to us. She knows the strength we garner from it, the dedication we put into it, the love we have for it. Every time we’ve run we have focused on sending Paula strength and endurance. In turn, we’ve been inspired by her great courage, her joy, her love. There have been many runs where thinking of Paula kept me moving forward, and many runs where I felt her with me, cheering me on, because that’s what she did. Always. And I’m having a hard time thinking about transitioning from running for Paula to running in memory of Paula. I’m reminding myself that she’ll still be there, cheering me on, just in a different form. But it’s hard, it’s just really hard.
This is what I’m asking anyone who is reading to do — remember Paula’s message to be your own best advocate, to know your body. She wanted to spare others her experience, help her do that, help her memory live on that way. And be kind to each other. With each act of kindness, both big and small, Paula will be with us. And I’m going to remember this, embrace it, live it. Each time I react with judgement or with disdain I will try to remember Paula’s message to be kind. Live gently. Love with grace. Always.