We all have but a moment on Earth; yet some moments are too short, even by our standards. Take our Cheryl: She wasn’t very big, but tough? Lord have mercy! Should anyone ever need an exemplar of courage, they need look no further than Cheryl, once my medical partner in the ER.
How long did I know Cheryl? Long enough to admire her as a consummate clinician, a warm, and often hilarious human being, and a woman who, when the hands of cancer took her by the collar pulling her ever closer, she laughed in his face, and never broke gaze.
I first met her fifteen, maybe twenty years ago. She stood seven feet tall, although her physical height was about 5’ 4”. Such was her presence. She quickly established by her clinical excellence that she had few peers and no masters, and I never knew anyone who could melt faster or flare quicker than she. Although completely affable and hilarious company, Cheryl’s inner warrior could be summoned – fully set for battle – with the snap of a finger. So a hapless lawyer – visiting the ER, his wife the patient – found out.
Full of local repute and ego, he instructed Cheryl what the tests and the disposition of his wife’s case would be. In short, he was determined to put Cheryl ‘in her place.’ Silly man. What he didn’t know is: Cheryl didn’t have a place. Furthermore, if Cheryl ever did get a place, it will be because she chose it, not because someone ordered her there. One of Cheryl’s shortcomings was, she don’t take orders… from nobody. Cheryl offered the worthy gentleman a terse, and I am sure, colorful summation of what was and what was not going to happen on her watch.
The lawyer, un-bloodied, but definitely bowed, left the ER with the haunting notion he might have tried to muscle a chick that wouldn’t muscle. Cheryl came out of the encounter her usual cheerful self; told us the story matter-of-factly. The encounter wasn’t emotional for her, it was simply business; her ER, her rules; no big deal.
Then Cheryl began to feel less than herself physically. It came on her with a deceptive stealth. Feeling even worse one day, she finished her shift, then signed in to be seen as a patient. Her pulse was 130 [usual range 70-80]. She had six liters of fluid drawn from her body, yet, typical Cheryl, she had finished her shift, and had done so with no sign or complaint about how badly she felt.
Final diagnosis? Wide-spread ovarian cancer. Cheryl was forty-four years old; my oldest daughter is forty-four years old. She had nothing against miracles, but she was too much a clinician not to know the odds of her survival.
Cheryl loved to ride horses; but now she rode one she neither chose nor saddled; she rode the Widow-maker. She rode it alone; for in this contest, no substitutes, no proxies are permitted. She was cheered-on and prayed-for by hundreds of friends. Yet, her resolve, her amazing courage, her wondrous, inspiring mettle and audacity showed no sign of faltering; and it was not a grim resolve; her sense of humor and her laughter were still much in play.
At last accounting, she’d had 24 liters of fluid drawn from her; had endured chemotherapy with wit and fortitude while awaiting the radiation and surgery which followed next. I mentioned above how bright Cheryl was, but I have detected a small defect in her vocabulary: say the words “surrender” “capitulate” or “give-up” and she’ll just stare at you, not knowing – or caring – what they mean.
She always said, “This cancer won’t kill me.” She was right. She went north for extensive surgery to ‘de-bulk’ the tumors, took infection, temperature to 105 and died. She came home on her shield…
A brilliant career; how many more patients could she have cured or comforted had her last muster not come so soon? How many more of her colleagues could she have inspired, as she inspired me, to try just a bit harder to comfort and cure? In short, Cheryl was christened with her own watermark. Then she died. Why?
There are things of Heaven not for us to know. It’s said, it’s not what you gather, but what you scatter that describes the life we have lived. Cheryl had lived her short life with grace.
Each of us has a day with our number on it, but in order to fully live our lives, we have to set that reality aside. But we should all pray we’re never held to such a narrow, such a proximate accounting as she valiantly faced. Should the day ever come when I face such adversity, I hope to be able to face it with half of the resolve, the courage, and, yes, the humor she bought to her own challenge. I hope I’ll remember Cheryl’s spirit, for then I’ll see that quirky little grin and hear her saying to me, “Man up, Garvin! Punch on!”
Amazons and Valkyries, tough women, yes; but Cheryl could teach them all something about bravery in battle. We don’t know where in Heaven she landed. But you can bet your stethoscope that place is now in ship-shape… and, if you’ll forgive a pun, in stitches.
In the patient working of time, the grief, the surrealism of her passing will be gently, persistently nudged out of the way by the profound gratitude she had been a part of our lives in the first place.
I know many prayers for Cheryl have been born aloft, yet, knowing her, I’d bet she has a counsel for us, one I feel we should all heed. Neither she nor I wrote these words, but I think she would have, given this is the way she lived.
REMEMBER ME WITH SMILES AND LAUGHTER,
FOR THAT’S HOW I’LL REMEMBER YOU ALL.
IF YOU CAN ONLY REMEMBER ME WITH TEARS,
THEN DON’T REMEMBER ME AT ALL…