“Don’t tell anyone,” she directed. I kept that promise.
She shared it with trusted friends and colleagues, but she didn’t want to have everyone moping around whenever they saw her or thought about her because of an illness.
Shocked and saddened, I asked all of the usual questions, “What kind? How bad? What can they do? How are you dealing with it?”
To this day, I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember what type of cancer she suffered from, but I do know that it was advanced and there was nothing that could be done to save her.
Although it ravaged her body, the cancer never defined who she was as a person. Denise didn’t want to upset anyone or worry them with this part of her life that couldn’t be changed.
Over the following months, we talked about chemo and possible experimental treatments. Losing all of her hair and her plans not to wear a wig to cover up her bald head. “I’ve got a nice shaped head, and I have my scarves,” she said.
Still, I bought the softest Hygee yarn and knitted a hat with her in mind. Knowing my “Deadhead” (fan of the Grateful Dead) friend, I even bought some cool tie dye material adorned with the band’s signature dancing bears with which to sew some face masks to use during the ongoing pandemic.
I offered both to Denise, but she politely turned them down, saying she was all set and had plenty of head coverings to keep her warm and masks to provide protection.
In early January, during a conversation via text, she wrote, “Feel exhausted every day – no chemo for past month – waiting for new plan tomorrow.”
Sadly, nothing the doctors tried worked. She was not going to get better, and she had come to terms with it.
This year, friends, neighbors, former coworkers from Real Estate agencies and around town came by with food or to visit. She and her husband, Bob both expressed their appreciation for the kindness everyone showed toward her.
When I spoke to Denise on Oct. 8, she told me that she had made her funeral arrangements at the West Haven Funeral Home. They discussed her obituary and her desire to have visitors leave their tears at home and to wear their tie dye shirts.
Denise strongly believed that we all impact those around us and even when we’re gone, the ripple effect can be felt and seen.
She left this world on her own terms. She was home with those she loved when she crossed over. She knew that she’d taken the burden of funeral planning and the stress of obituary writing off of her family, and the only thing left was to remember her as she was, attending Orange baseball games, organizing volunteers at the food tent during the Orange Firemen’s Carnival and running around like crazy, making sure everything was just right at the Orange Country Fair — she was so proud of the white directional signs that stand on the fairgrounds during the weekend event each year.
I have one big regret that I’m trying to push back in order to honor her wishes. On Sunday, Denise was on my mind all day long. I was exhausted from lack of sleep and all I wanted to do was stay in bed. But when I did go out to retrieve a prescription, I felt a strong pull to drive to her house for a visit. But I didn’t, I went home, fed my dogs and went to bed early.
Two days later she was gone and it was too late. Now I can hear her saying, “STOP IT! You can’t change the past, embrace the future and make the best of it.”
If you’re going to her wake, don’t dare have a sad face. Celebrate everything good and be happy.
I like to think that Jerry Garcia greeted Denise at heaven’s gate with her beloved dog Franco, and that she is finally pain free, carefree, wearing her tie dye and dancing.
I can see her face as the words, “Keep in touch with Bob and don’t forget to appreciate every moment of every day” are stuck in my head today.
Thank You Denise for your friendship and all of the belief you had in me over the years. For showing me how to be strong and how precious our time on earth is. Enjoy the afterlife, and keep watching over us. We already miss you. Forgive me if I choke up, and I will try really hard not to cry.