New Friend, Old Memory: Cancer Awareness Month

Last week I added a new contact to my iPhone address book. As my thumbs typed out the name “Cheryl” a series of unexpected synapses fired a distant memory to the front of my mind.
I’m hiding from the late-morning sun beneath a palm tree on Newport Beach. It’s late summer 2003. I’m holding a tiny brick to my ear—a Nokia cell phone with a gold shimmer and zero intelligence—mid conversation with my Aunt Cheryl.
In one month she’ll die of cancer.
This many years later the details of the conversation are fuzzy.
She shares with me affirmations of steadfast faith and a sense of empathy for my late mother’s battle with the disease—her dear sister who died just fourteen months prior to this phone call. As I dig my toes in the sand just a few hundred feet from the Pacific, she rests alone in the confines of her bedroom in a quaint suburban home outside the Twin Cities. A radical treatment has rendered her body toxic to those in close proximity. Physical contact with her husband and son is prohibited.
This memory saddens me deeply.
More synapses fire and I’m on the phone again. It’s three and a half weeks later and I’m standing in the hallway of my father’s house in the Chicago burbs. My grandmother is on the phone informing me that Aunt Cheryl has passed away. Our planned road trip to Minneapolis is no longer a family visit—it’s to help Uncle Pat make funeral arrangements. My heart sinks in my chest. I’m shocked, sad and angry that I will not get to see her alive.
I hit “Save Contact” and looked up from my address book.
My internal monologue is despondent.
“That was unexpected.”
Despite the lingering sadness of Aunt Cheryl’s absence—together with that of my mom—the memory reinvigorated my creative drive to finally share a piece of my story on stage. I decided it’s time to shake the digital dust from a script I wrote about the inevitable shift in family dynamic brought about by loss.
Aunt Cheryl is no longer segregated from her bedroom, toxic to the touch.
Mom is no longer confined to a broken body.
Both were amazing women.
Maybe it has something to do with Breast Cancer Awareness month, but I really want them to be remembered. I also want to come alongside others still engaged in the battle. That’s why I’m attending Day of Champions on Sunday to benefit the Bogart Pediatric Cancer Research Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Guess who invited me?
My new friend Cheryl.