I'm going to be blunt- I really wasn't sure if I should even write this post. I feel like my writing skills can't even begin to convey what a heartbreaking week this has been. Part of me doesn't even want to write this because I know I'll cry the entire time. But I feel like not writing about it would be cowardly - April's been such a strong, courageous person throughout this entire ordeal that it would be wrong not to share it. It would be wrong not to try to describe how much love and care could be found, even in the worst of times. I apologize for how inadequate my words are but I had to try.
Our friend April has been fighting breast cancer for the last two and half years. She was diagnosed at the young age of 33. When her cancer was discovered, she already had multiple tumors and several were inoperable in their current state. The hope was that they could use chemotherapy to shrink the tumors small enough so that they could remove them.
She's been through several rounds of chemo. Some have seemed to help for a while but the tumors always kept coming back. Some rounds of chemo had to be discontinued because they were killing her. But we all hoped that the fix for her was right around the corner.
When Marcus and I got married in November, we asked her to do a reading. She was obviously very tired, but she came and made a day that was already special, even more special to us. We were all worried but we still hadn't given up hope.
Even when we found out last week that April's liver was starting to fail, we all still held out hope. Surely the stopgap chemo would work so that she could participate in a new trial she had gotten into for a drug that showed a lot of promise and hope.
Saturday, April went back to the doctor to see if her liver levels had improved. The doctor was compassionate, but blunt with her and told her that he needed to let her know that she probably wouldn't be leaving the hospital again. April turned to her family and said "I'd like to have a house party blow-out, with all the people I love." So plans were put in motion Saturday afternoon for a party on Sunday. A Hawaiian Luau was planned and we were all told to wear our brightest, most gaudy outfits.
In this country, we love our David and Goliath stories. We love to hear about people overcoming all odds, fighting through every obstacle in their path. But sometimes we need to be reminded that no matter how hard we try or how hard we fight, we can't win. We don't always get our fairy tale endings - no matter how much we want them. We want to hear the Chicken Soup for the Soul version of cancer and we tend to forget that life is rarely that black or white. No one fought harder than April and her family and no one deserved a happy ending more than them. This is a real story with an ending that no one wanted, but it's the ending that we got.
I can't even begin to convey how wonderful it was to see the tender care that April's husband has been giving her. Watching him feed her, gently wipe her mouth and try to get her to drink - I still have a mark on my hand from where I rammed my thumbnail into it so I wouldn't completely break down in sobbing tears. I couldn't even look at my husband because I know in my heart how much we love one another and I know we've both been putting ourselves in April's husband's shoes. When Mac and April said their wedding vows, they had every reason to hope that any sickness they were promising to support one another through would be brief or after they had spent a lifetime together. Yet the love they've shown one another throughout this whole ordeal has been a gift to all of us who love them.
I can't even begin to describe the grief of a best friend who put a party together in less than 24 hours - knowing it would be the last gift she could give her. We watched her hold her infant son in one arm while the other hand held her best friend's hand.
We laughed as one of our friends showed up in a coconut shell bra and grass skirt that was very becoming to him and we were all grateful to see one another and tell stories about April. One of April's best friends, Val, remarked about how heartbreaking it was to know that we were all probably going to be seeing one another again soon.
I can't even begin to describe the grief etched on her parents faces - watching a daughter they loved begin to weaken and knowing that in this unfair, cruel world, she was going to die before them. We listened to her dad break down as he described how they had to have this party because it was April's last request and hugged him, wishing we could do more. We watched her sister play with her little boy, and wished that he was able to grow up with his Aunt April looking out for him.
I can't begin to describe how helpless I felt, asking if there was anything, ANYTHING I could do to help and knowing that the one thing everyone wanted most was beyond my ability to help.
I can't begin to describe the bittersweet mingling of grief and love that everyone at the party felt. I heard people that used to work with April talk about how lost they've been without her. How she was always so organized and knew where everything was. Friends shared stories about her. Marcus reminisced about the week they were co-counselors and got stuck with the boys that would not shower.
I can't begin to describe what a beautiful party it was. We had lots of babies around us, good food to share. There were fireworks and lots of laughter - tears too - but the party really was a celebration of April's life and what she had meant to all of us.
We made food to bring - how could we not? But the entire time I was trying to figure out what we could bring, I kept thinking how screwed up it was that I was bringing something to a party to say goodbye forever to a friend. I mean - what the hell do you bring to that?
April has always told us that she loved the way we experimented with food. Marcus visited her Friday, bringing homemade sourdough bread and elderberry jelly we had canned that week. Marcus explained why the jelly was named 'Monty Python' jelly and she laughed and told Marcus that she loved it when we got inventive in the kitchen. So we made a grilled corn salsa and peach brown butter bars - both are foods that celebrate the bounty of summer and are a little different, without being strange.
Sitting there in that bedroom with her was such a painful experience - seeing how yellow she'd become in two days. Looking over at the pictures of her on her parent's desk - pictures of her when she graduated from high school, pictures of her looking radiant on her wedding day - times when everyone, including her, thought she had a lifetime in front of her.
There were moments of laughter as well. When we came back later that evening, she whispered that if we didn't mind, she was keeping the bread we had brought and we both laughed and told her the bread was all hers. We spent some more time with her and then we both kissed her goodbye and Marcus told her that we loved her. She had been struggling that day to stay awake with limited success but a brief moment of lucidity came over her and she looked at us and told us she loved us too. We left and cried all the way home.
The last update we heard was that April was mostly unconscious but seemed to be resting comfortably. So we wait - waiting for the news that we know is going to come. News that you'd think would be a relief but no one wants to hear.
We love you April. The world is a much better place because we had you as long as we did and it will be a much poorer place without you.
Marcus and I were talking with April's mom Sunday afternoon before the party and she mentioned that April had always loved cherry pie so when she was at Kroger's getting food, she tried to get her something that might get her to eat. She picked up a cherry coffeecake but like most grocery store baked goods, they're always a lot prettier than they taste. I knew at that moment, exactly what we were going to do.
As soon as the party was over and we had helped clean up, we let her parents know that we'd be back in a little bit and we drove as fast as we could to the closest grocery store. We ran in, got our supplies and headed home. Our kitchen was a mess - full of dirty dishes from cooking food for the party and we had boxes of fruit and tomatoes everywhere that we had been planning to can that day.
Normally, we'd make our own pie crust but in a 90 degree kitchen with no counter space to find, that was not going to happen in a speedy manner. So we bought pie crust at the store, along with puff pastry. We did have several bags of frozen cherries we'd been hoarding away since last summer so we combined them with a jar of homemade pie filling we had.
Were these pies pretty? No - we didn't have time to let them cool before drizzling icing on them. We raced back to her house and when we got there, I realized that we both looked like deranged bakers - I had flour prints all over my black top and Marcus had managed to splash cherry filling on his ear.
We came in and Mac was feeding her but it was obvious that she was struggling to eat. After she had rested for a bit, she whispered to him that she wanted to try the pie. I held the plate while Mac fed her. Did April eat them because she was really hungry or did she eat them because she knew it would make us feel better? I have no idea - April's the type of person who would have eaten them even if they had tasted awful. All I know is that we have never felt more privileged in our lives to cook for someone.
My Mom later told me what a sweet thing it was that we did. I explained to her that it was the very least thing we could do - how blessed we were to be able to do it. Those aren't just pretty words I said - words to show off and prove how humble and giving I am. I have never in my life cooked something for someone and had it mean so much to me. I know Marcus feels the same way. I never want to have to repeat that experience and if there was some way to have warded off the circumstances, we would have done just about anything to do so. But circumstances were beyond our control. I'm grateful we could do this one thing.
I know that for the rest of my life, whenever Marcus or I eat a cherry pie, we're going to think of April. And while we may cry, we'll both be smiling through our tears.
Quick Cherry Turnovers and Quick Cherry Pie
1 can cherry pie filling - try to get a good one so it isn't sickly sweet.
3/4 cup frozen sweet cherries
3/4 cup frozen sour cherries
Sugar - I can't give you a precise amount. Just add it until the sauce is a little sweeter than you'd like it to be because you want it to soak into and sweeten the cherries a bit.
1/4 cup flour, sifted into mixture and stirred.
Combine all of the above in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until sugar and flour are completely incorporated into the mixture and the filling is heated all the way through.
To make turnovers:
Take one package of puff pastry and thaw one piece. Cut into four squares. Spoon a few cherries onto each piece(don't overfill) and fold the pastry over until it's a triangle. Brush a little beaten egg on the edges and crimp together. Spread a piece of parchment paper over a baking sheet or pan and place the turnovers on it so they're not touching. Brush the turnovers with the beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until turnovers are puffed and turning golden.
To make pies:
Take the circle of pie crust and cut it in half. Cut each half in half again. Spoon pie filling onto each piece and dab a little beaten egg on the edges. Fold the dough over to form a triangle and crimp the edges shut. Brush with beaten egg and cut a couple of slits in the top of each pie. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until pies are beginning to turn a golden brown color. Mix 1/4 powdered sugar with as little milk as possible to turn it into a thick liquid. When pies are done, wait until they cool and drizzle icing over with a spoon.
Just a note - I wrote this post last night. We found out earlier today that April passed away in her sleep this morning. Please keep her family in your thoughts and prayers.