Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Paddling Love Story

A Paddling Love Story

Have you ever had someone come into your life and leave you so altered you wanted to write a great novel about it, paddle oceans, perhaps sing a poem from a mountain top, dance on main street, or build a pinwheel garden just to tell the world "hey, because of this person, I am not the same!"?

Whatever we do in our lives, everyone hopes to leave something behind from their time on earth. One of the most significant things we can leave behind our story...or stories. If you were loved and altered by someone's story, how their lives touched is a story worth telling.

Cancer sucks! There really isn't anything else to say about it, but that. I hope you don't mind my telling this involves magical friendships, courage, victories, loss, wisdom, and lessons learned. It is about celebration of life at its best and most temporary, and of course, paddles, bubbles and pinwheels.

Paddling came into my life five years ago by the arm twisting of a close friend. Since, I can't swim well and don't much like the water overall, being on a very narrow tippy boat on the lake (or especially the ocean) is NOT where I prefer to be! It wasn't right away, but over time the sport of paddling grew on me and I fell in love with the unlikely.

Soon after came the arrival of four other women who felt the same way (with a lot less arm twisting), all with strong personalities, yet very different, contributing to a team whose whole was more than the sum of it's parts. One of those women was Jennifer Andrews. The first time we met, I raved about the sport to her. And here was this woman, who told me how much she loved Hawaii, and who loved the water, but I thought she was way too glamorous to ever join us. Jen came out the next day and never left until she couldn't join us any longer...!

She became our best friend and confidante, hours on the phone, funny stories over wine, we were never without her support, compassion, and uncensored humor. One year she gave us all an Easter basket (she loved holidays) full of forgotten childhood wonders...a candy necklace (remember those?), pinwheels, and bottles of bubbles! It reminded us to play, enjoy, and believe in the moment!

The six of us did everything together, growing as friends, each contributed something to the group that made us all better. The friendship was intense, and seemingly exclusive, we couldn't help it...we were on "borrowed time". That camaraderie afforded us success in races, success we would have never dreamed possible. A novice team from the desert? Competing on the ocean? All over 45, two of which were grandmothers, winning medals? Nonsense! But we did. In our first race together, the canoe seemed to just glide with the magic of teamwork, and every race after that just got better. We were full of ourselves, reveling in the moments and the love that was "sixasone". And...we thought we had forever to continue the magic. We had no idea it would end so soon.

When Jennifer was diagnosed with stage four cancer, a year later, our worlds were rocked to the very core. We found ourselves in a different kind of race and everything changed. It was a long tough fight for her, in which she complained little and still laughed and bossed us around when she came out. Being the sass, sparkle, and spunk to any occasion, she kept us uplifted instead of the other way around. We sought to encourage her with themed gifts which, we left on her doorstep when she returned from her long trips to the hospital. One time it was a super hero stuff, with individual homemade capes, bubbles, another time, a pinwheel garden outside her window. There was even a flat cardboard version of her that went to every race in her absence, lovingly known among all the teams, as Flat Jen!

In 2008 she asked us to "pinky swear" that when she was done with Chemo, we would all do the Rig Run in Santa Barbara with her. It was the dream of doing that race that got her through two months of radiation treatments in the Chicago winter. That summer, on a perfect May day in Southern California, the six of us paddling together again, all of us believing in miracles, she was the happiest, strongest, ever and paddled 12 miles! We didn't win a medal but of course no one cared, our prize was so much more.

As hard as we prayed, paddled, and wished for a miracle for her, we never got one. That last January we went to help her take down her Christmas decorations, all together in one room," just like old sixasone times", she said smiling. The laughter was bittersweet, somehow we all knew it was over and it was... we never saw her again.

Now, I wear her silver paddle around my neck along with the words Kinipela which is Jennifer in Hawaiian...she is never far from me! I miss her more than I can say! There is so much more I would like to tell, so many stories of how she changed us, but that will require pages still to be written. But this is what I want to say most...Jennifer's death taught me to live...the only thing about cancer that is worthwhile.

Most of us have been touched by this disease, or know someone who has, and have to find peace with it in our own way. It is a journey for those who live and die with it and those of us who walk beside them. Who teaches who? Who inspires who? Who is the most courageous? We are all courageous who have been touched by cancer, but none more than those who fight it within their bodies every day!
Jennifer changed us, she made us better. But we were able to give her a gift as well...two years of adventures that felt like a lifetime to all of us. She did things she never dreamed of, and had five best friends to celebrate life with, and that knowledge makes us all smile whenever we think of her.

In her memory, I created an event called Paddles and Pinwheels, please join us on the water, wearing a purple shirt (her favorite color...or pink...or lavender, and place a pinwheel on your canoe to honor someone you love... someone whose story altered your life. Let's celebrate the temporary, celebrate the sunshine on the lake, smile and laugh, celebrate life...with paddles in the water and spinning pinwheels in the wind! Wheee whee!

Thanks You for listening! Pam