There are so many topics on my list of things to write about; celebrity obsession, the effect of children on marital happiness, my pesky last 12 pounds to lose. But right now everything I do for a living, write about, think about, and act upon seems so terribly trite. My life, my “problems,” and my musings on American culture feel less important following the untimely death of a college friend. Staring at the glowing screen of the laptop, all I can think about is how healthy I am. How happy that my body can run, jump, lift, dance, and sing. How fortunate I am to have a mind that is sharp, analytic, and balanced. It is a shame that it takes horrible life events to put things into perspective and remind us how lucky we are to be alive.
Wendy, a year younger than me, was a fellow Political Science survivor at Mary Washington College. She somehow possessed personality traits that are often mutually exclusive; shy and outgoing, polite and sarcastic, sophisticated and naïve, anxious and tranquil, silly and serious. Wendy would be the first to challenge a professor, to voice her opinion (to which she had many!), and to take action on a cause she believed in. That same woman who had no trouble going toe-to-toe with our professors would clam up in the presence of a cute guy. Her warmth and charm, evidence of a good Virginia upbringing, made her quick wit and sharp tongue beyond hilarious. Wendy could worry about political strife in the world while kicking back with an adult beverage at a Jimmy Buffet concert. She could communicate volumes and change the world with her smile alone. Wendy could somehow laugh, hug, tell a joke, flirt, answer a question, project her opinion, or get herself out of a pickle just by flashing her pearly whites; the best part was she was so terribly modest she had no clue of that power.
Her life after college followed the path I thought my own would take; job on Capitol Hill, apartment in Alexandria, traveling with friends, and involvement in her community. Wendy was brave enough to follow her dreams, even if those dreams started with a very low paying job as a Congressional aide; I will always be in awe of her sticking to her guns. While her life was short she accomplished more then many could claim in a lifetime twice as long.
Wendy was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer mere days after I received word that a co-worker from my first “real” job lost his battle with the same disease at the young age of 52. Both Wendy and Dave were non-smokers who followed the prescription for a long and healthy life; eat well, exercise, develop friendships, laugh, and love. They did everything we are supposed to do but both received a diagnosis usually reserved for people who make less than healthy life choices. Some people smoke all their lives and die of old age, some people manage to avoid the cancer sticks and die in their 30s. Not that I am advocating people taking up a 3 pack-a-day habit, but sometimes even an ounce of prevention isn’t enough to combat cancer if it is in our genes. To quote another friend “life is so hideously unfair.”
Wendy battled her cancer the same way she tackled life; head on with equal doses of humor, strength, courage, and sometimes anger. Despite her poor prognosis she continued joking around with her friends and family, even naming her cancer Earl after a Dixie Chicks’ song; that Earl had to die, goodbye Earl. We followed her blog religiously as Wendy kept us up to date with the ins and outs of her life and her cancer treatments. Her candid honesty was sometimes brutal, but more often brilliant. We cheered when there were signs of tumor shrinkage and cried when her cancer spread. She opened up about her struggle with hair loss and in turn received a boat load of hats from far and wide. We shared her excitement about her upcoming trip to the Dominican Republic and felt immense disappointment that she couldn’t enjoy her passion of travel one more time. Through it all Wendy was not a cancer patient but still her opinionated, open-minded, bacon loving self who happened to have cancer.
Earl ended up being far too strong and aggressive, taking Wendy from us after only 32 years of life. Her Facebook page, which now serves as a make-shift memorial for all those who miss her, includes a powerful reminder for all of us. Wendy left for us a quote from the movie Shawshank Redemption; “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Her legacy will live on in the spirit she so generously left to her friends and family and her reminder that life is short. Seize the day!