Laurie and I have long forgiven Joan for the Victorian-era mauve-pink bridesmaids dresses she made us wear, and I can only hope that Joan has forgiven me for the peach colored satin one I made her wear. She was six months pregnant and it had a large peach bow right above the backside. Enough said. For the next couple of years we saw each other a few times per year. Then life’s changes began; I moved to the west coast, Joan had a beautiful son, and our correspondence over the years dwindled to a phone call every now and then and an annual Christmas card.
Around 20 years later, while wasting time on Facebook, I found Joan. Within a short amount of time I’d also found Laurie and our dear friend and occasional roommate, Nancy. I hadn’t seen or heard from either in years. A beach weekend reunion (ladies only) was planned and turned into an annual event for the next ten years, often with visits in between the summers as well. Nancy hosted the beach retreats in her beautiful beach place and each summer we’d descend upon the house with chocolate, spirits, sunscreen, and stories. The four of us could spend entire days together and still stay up talking long into the night (in my world, 11:00 is late). We met each other’s children and significant others and compared stories of career paths and families. It is one of my greatest blessings that two decades after college the four of us had ten years together to make new memories and navigate our approaching middle-age together.
Joan and Nancy visited me in February of 2016. Neither had been in my area before so we went to the beach and some of the great restaurants and coffee shops my family likes. They saw my daughter play a lead role in a neighboring community theatre on opening night. Joan talked about having an appointment scheduled for not long after she would return home because she was having some back issues. None of us, including Joan I believe, thought much of this. Joan was in excellent physical shape and had no unhealthy habits other than jumping out of airplanes. After this appointment an MRI was done and a mass was found. Surgery to remove it was scheduled. I called Joan the day following the surgery and asked her how everything went and she told me to check my email. Bob had written to all of us with the distressing news that Joan had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage 3.
Being Joan, she and Bob immediately went about researching conventional treatments, alternatives, and available studies. She went through grueling chemotherapy treatments and endured the sickness that followed. She changed her already-healthy diet to include things that would help with immunity, strength, nausea, and energy. She was often unable to go to the gym, but when she could, she went. For the first year she continued to work when she could, not wanting to let her PT patients down. She was in remission after her chemotherapy. Remission did not last long, though, and Joan entered a study at a prestigious hospital. More treatments and medications followed, as did more emergency room visits; she and Bob heard good news and bad news in equal measure. They were both shocked when told Joan could no longer participate in the study because her disease had progressed too far. With input from a variety of doctors, Joan and Bob made the heartbreaking decision together; there would be no more cancer treatments. All further medical interventions would be to treat the symptoms and keep Joan comfortable. Bob broke this news in a heartfelt email to all of Joan’s “War Angels,” and encouraged us all to call and visit for as long as Joan was strong enough to enjoy it.
Before Christmas Joan was in a lovely hospice center and Laurie, Nancy, and I planned a visit to her. I arrived a day before and went to the center, fighting back tears and trying to still my shaking long enough to sign the guest registry. I headed down the hall in the direction I’d been pointed, and found…a party! Many of Joan’s eight siblings were there, her husband and sons, her mother, her coworkers, several friends from high school and college, and Joan was happily visiting with everyone. The next day Laurie and Nancy arrived and the atmosphere was the same. More relatives and friends had also arrived and Joan’s room and the corridor outside could not accommodate the number of people who loved her. We were moved to the center’s lounge, where Bob had food catered in and Joan would join us when she felt up to visiting or was not having a procedure done. She happily posed for pictures with everyone despite the fact that she hadn’t worn make-up since October and wore sleep pants and a t-shirt. The four of us had about an hour together that day in Joan’s room, laughing and remembering a lifetime of friendship. I hugged Joan good-bye when it was my turn to leave and she told me not to cry. Nancy followed me down the hall to tell me that she had been through this with her father and that this was not the last time I’d see Joan. We had a quick cry together, then a laugh (because my earring became snagged on her sweater). And she was right.
Joan was home for Christmas, although largely in bed, and began planning her funeral and celebration of life party. All three of us saw Joan and Bob at different times in December and January, trying to give Bob a break from being a tireless caretaker and to spend some more time with Joan. Even as she became weaker and and less communicative, she planned every detail of her wake, funeral, and celebration, and gave instructions for another funeral mass and “perfect party” to take place over the summer on Long Island. She also wrote letters to her family to be opened after she died, and was in the process of writing to many of her friends before she was no longer able. She wrote birthday cards and “firsts” cards to her sons through their 70th birthdays, and still found the time and energy to console those around her, remaining positive and uncomplaining.
Joan passed away at the hospice center on February 5, 2018, with Bob and their sons beside her. The wake, funeral mass, and after-gathering in the subsequent days were well-attended although Joan’s huge family alone could have filled the space. The events were punctuated with moving speeches, tears, and laughter. The speeches and tears were because such a special person was no longer physically among us but the laughter was plentiful because she once WAS. There were hundreds of people participating in and attending the events in two states and every one of them had been deeply touched by Joan in their lives, many more than once.
Joan’s strength and outlook made us all stronger and more positive. The love she shared with her husband and sons made us all draw our families closer in our hearts. The love for her friends warms us still. My last communication with Joan was in a letter I received a couple of weeks after she died (Bob sent it to me). In it, she said, “I will be watching over you and your precious family and grandkids. I promise. So enjoy life…”
I will, Joan. Thank you for everything.