How often does it hit you that a decision made in the spur of a moment would alter your life and change the person you have become? Sitting on Ruthie’s sofa in Las Vegas ( a town I had no intention of ever spending time in) and thumbing through the cookbook that she lovingly made for all of her family last Christmas made this very clear. Let’s go back 23 months. It was the perfect May day. The sun was out and the temperature was screaming, “Just go to the beach for a little while! You deserve it.” The kids are in school, the dishes don’t have to be done now, and you have a few hours before your doctor’s appointment. Just DO it!. Normally, I may have been swayed, but in my mind, my beach days felt very different now. Mid-December I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and by January 10th I had undergone my mastectomy. And although that hadn’t been on my list of things to do that year, it certainly wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. It was caught early and I had a supportive husband who swore my boobs had had a good run, and although missed, their absence didn’t change the way he felt about me. Exactly what you want to hear, but still a teensy bit hard to believe. We live in a village and I had scores of supportive friends and family who were there with dinners, rides for my kids, coffee, errands, rides to doctors appointments, anything else I needed . One friend wrote a beautiful, hysterical funny poem about my boobs and read it at my “Bye Bye Boob” party.How lucky could I be, right??? And if one surgery were’t enough, I ended up with five more that year! Six you ask? Didn’t she just have two boobs? You are correct, but I hit a few glitches along the way. I managed to get a couple of staff infections, incisions that weren’t healing well, and a body that just didn’t seem to want anything foreign in it. I figured it was my Karma for all of the comments I had made about the fact that, although I was buckling my boobs in my belt these days, I would never get implants. Back to my lovely May day........The thought of putting on a bathing suit was not really what I wanted to do, no matter how loudly the beach was screaming at me. After five valiant attempts at reconstruction I called it quits. Boobs were overrated and I would just live with the “rotten peaches”. That was my description of what was left on my chest, where previously there had been decent cleavage. If you are having problems with this visual, picture a perfectly happy peach sitting on the side of the road, minding it’s own business when it is run over by a truck. Now fast forward a couple of days, still sitting there, completely ignored in the hot sun, shriveled and FLAT. Did that help? But, again, lucky.With my hands in the sink, still wet and soapy, my Mother’s voice popped into my head. She had mentioned that a couple was renting her friend Jean’s house so the wife could have breast cancer treatment here and thought I would like her. Since the beach idea was now a quiet murmur, I decided to go over and introduce myself. Off I went, and my world was never quite the same.Robert answered the door and led me into the back yard where this beautiful woman was sitting. Her name was Ruthie. She was tan, had sparkling blue eyes, the biggest smile ever, and looked to be the picture of health! They lived in Vegas but wanted to have treatment here. Within 15 minutes we were laughing and talking like we had been friends since kindergarten. I had already flashed her the rotten peaches, she had offered to loan me her prosthetics and join me at my doctor’s appointment that afternoon. I was seeing Dr. Connealy, a holistic doc that Doogie (my young plastic surgeon) suggested hoping that it might help accelerate my healing. His motive was to move things along so he could get back to fixing me. Mine was so that I might have some energy and rid myself of all the antibiotics and the 43 hours of anesthesia still in my system. We hopped in the car and headed to the doctor like two little school girls that had just met on the playground and were headed towards the swings. We spent the next 14 months together on the slide.Have I mentioned how lucky am?Well, my definition of luck continued to change. I had been weathering the storm for five months - Ruthie’s storm had been going on for five years. It’s amazing how your mind can wrap it’s way around what you are dealing with but be unable to conceive handling what someone else is going through. Ruthie couldn’t believe that I could skate through five surgeries with a smile still on my face, especially since she still had the expanders from her first and only surgery. To me, that was a walk in the park compared to five years of chemo and radiation, yet, she was still smiling. We agreed to disagree! Dr. Connealy is a strong believer in the importance nutrition plays in everyone’s health, especially those with cancer. Sugar is the enemy. We both jumped on the bandwagon and supported each other’s attempts at “being good” but after a couple of months, Ruthie developed a horrible cough, and her oncologist confirmed what we already knew: the cancer was now in her lungs and she looked at me with her big smile and a cookie in her hand, and said “Sugar is my friend”, and I handed her another one just to keep her smiling. She had agreed to try another round of chemo and seemed forever hopeful. She took it like just another hiccup. This seemed like more than a hiccup to me, but I decided to take her lead and continue on as though it was just another day. My normal had completely changed but hers had just veered slightly.Unfortunately, we were wrong, but with more chemo the cough did quiet down a bit, but not Ruthie. She could be going through the worst days of the month, throwing up constantly, and when she was finally ready to eat again, we would arrive with dinner, and she would be apologizing for not cooking for us. I would comment on the fact that I was so tired of her not pulling her own weight, knowing that within a matter of days, she would walk in my door with something yummy that she had made! One day she arrived with a bouquet of sunflower pens that she had made for me, in and around barfing! Always planning ahead!!LIfe went on and she seemed to be handling the treatment well, hopeful that this might work. I, on the other hand, had regained my strength and the rotten peaches were not only still ugly (not sure how I thought someday they would become prettier) but were now very uncomfortable when I moved my arms or took a deep breath. I was attempting to get used to it, but it wasn’t working so well. Doogie said that since there was no tissue left, the scar tissue and skin were now adhering to my rib cage. Now there’s a pretty picture! The best comparison is getting your hair caught in something. That happens to you a lot, right? Anyway, the point is there is no give! Doogie had a plan. Did I mention I called him a surgery whore? He knew I meant it in the nicest possible way. My only option at this point was to reconstruct using my stomach fat. Lose some stomach fat? Interesting. As nice as this sounds, and I had a gaggle of girlfriends offering up some of theirs for the cause, it did mean another surgery, and not just another quick breast one! This would be a 10-12 hour surgery, typically. But, I’m not typical! The rotten peaches and I went home to sleep on that idea. The strongest one against this new plan was Ruthie who was surprisingly adamant. I told her to look at the bright side: she may be able to win a few more of our battles over things and she would be able to outrun me for awhile. She told me afterward that she was going to be so pissed at me if I died before she did! My surgery was scheduled for 7:30am. I reminded Doogie, as he was sharpening his knives (I know they aren’t called knives), ‘Remember, small and perky”. I woke up in recovery 20 hours later, did the math very quickly and realized once again not typical.By Christmas Eve, Ruthie was not doing well and she wasn’t sure whether she had it in her to come over for Christmas Day. But as usual she managed to make it. Rob settled her into my “boob chair”. It was named that because I bought it prior to my mastectomy and another friend who had had a mastectomy told me that I would need something comfortable to sleep in (and not fall out of) since I wouldn’t be able to lie flat. The chair served me well so I snuggled her into it and told her she could get up to pee but other than that she would be waited on. The day after New Year’s, I came by for a visit and she was still in bed. She was so tired and frustrated at not being able to do much of anything, and the pain was increasing. I crawled in on Rob’s side and tried to be quiet (hard for me as you can probably imagine) and let her process some of her feelings. She had said no more chemo knowing full well that this decision would expedite the end. She said that she was really ok with it. She knew deep down when she was diagnosed that this was something that she wasn’t going to beat and vowed to enjoy every minute that she had left. She was a living testimony to this every day. It’s a hard thing to keep in mind if you don’t have the threat of Death hanging over you because Life just keeps getting in the way. It’s sad that most people need their life pulled out from under them to step back and remember to consciously enjoy it. Kind of bassackwards if you ask me. She asked Rob to show me the picture of her casket. “I want you to tell me what you think”. They had gone to the mortuary the day before so that Ruthie could scratch another chore off her list. Rob handed me the brochure. Sitting with the picture in my hand, I couldn’t believe at any time this might be my sweet friend’s new home. “Well, looks cozy enough, not what I want, but if you do, it’s fine with me. Phin is just going to row me out in the ocean and throw me overboard”. Rob looked over and asked if it would be before I die? “Doesn’t really matter”. We all laughed. I asked them if my joking made it harder. Thankfully, they said that they needed it, because it’s what I do. I make jokes and pimp food. It’s my coping mechanism to keep me from constantly crying.The next morning when I came in Ruthie was dressed and sitting on the couch. I looked at her sitting there all cute and smiling and said “Who dragged you off your death bed?” She started laughing and told me that Rob really wanted her to give chemo another try. They would use the chemo that she had tried a couple years ago that made her so sick. I couldn’t believe she was considering it, but I’m not sure if Phin were sitting by my side hoping for a miracle, I would be able to say forget it. She said she would know soon enough if she would be able to handle it, and if not, she would feel as though she had done everything she could. The following week she was admitted to the hospital. She was in so much pain that there wasn’t any comfortable position. She was so sensitive to any kind of medication including pain meds. Amazing that she had been pumped full of so many poisons to kill cancer and now she couldn’t even take anything to help relieve the pain. I was so angry at the unfairness. They kept pushing radiation to help with the tumor on her lung. They would come to move her to another bed to take her down for treatment and her screams ,as they tried to move her, ripped my heart out. There was nothing I could say to make her laugh through it, and she didn’t even want to eat the sweet treats I would bring her. Rob had been working from home the entire year. I told him I would stay with Ruthie at night in the hospital if he would do the days. I reminded him that he’s a very deep sleeper and wouldn’t wake up if she needed him anyway! He had figured out how to wrap her up like a burrito before he would leave for the night. It was the only time she was comfortable and not in horrible pain. We were quite the team. He knew just how to move her and I learned how to wrap. She was trying to be a good sport but even sound hurt her. Rob would sit by her all day without even turning the television on. I would walk in and see him sitting quietly by the bed, sometimes holding her hand and I would wonder if it were as hard for them as I imagined it to be. If it were this hard for me, didn’t it have to be a million times worse for them, or had they had the luxury (if you can call it that) of years to prepare for what might come? To me it seemed so fast. I didn’t want to loose her yet. I hadn’t had enough time.Three days into it and with them both trying to convince anyone who would listen that this pain was not due to any tumors, the doctors finally seemed to hear and took her down to x-ray. It showed clearly that her back was broken. They determined that it probably happened when they tried to get her onto the portable potty. Her bones were mottled with cancer. They brought her back into the room, put a diaper on her and told her she would need to stay in bed because if she tried to get up her bones could break. The look in her eyes was devastating. After Rob left she asked me to please smother her with the pillow-and she wasn’t kidding. I don’t think I had ever respected Dr. Kavorkian more. I just told her that my kids might be a little bummed with the stigma of a mother in jail for murder. She’d fought so hard and so long and deserved to call the shots now and not spend the rest of her time in diapers, bedridden.After ten days, they came in and said that her insurance would no longer pay because her stay was no longer medically necessary. We all looked at each other like we were in the twilight zone. Here was a woman who couldn’t get out of bed at all being told that it wasn’t medically necessary. Really? And the reason is...you’ll love this one...because she wouldn’t take the pain meds. I wanted to track down the person in charge of her case and smother him with her pillow. What part of deathly ill from taking pain meds did they not understand?? Evidently, that didn’t matter. Her doctor said the only thing he could think of was to take her into surgery and insert a pain pump. That was done and the next day she was sent home to a hospital bed in the living room with Rob in a twin bed in the dining room so he would always be close.You would think this was it, but this was Ruthie, also not typical! She wasn’t done. Once the pain pump was dialed in and the pain was reduced, her smile and good nature returned. She had a walker next to her bed and could make it back and forth to the bathroom and most days she felt up to heading out for a stroll in her wheel chair although I wasn’t allowed to push her. She kind of held a grudge about the ONE time we went down a little incline and she almost tipped over. ALMOST. It’s not like I had to lift her out of the gutter, but NO, I didn’t get to push her anymore. One morning, Rob and I are sitting at the dining room table near her bed and she gets up and starts holding onto the table and chairs trying to get to the bathroom. I’m yelling at her to wait for her walker and she’s telling me she doesn’t have time (her walker was conveniently placed by the toilet). Rob and I are yelling back and forth that we are no longer going to cater to the cripple because she was obviously playing us. She retorts, as she comes back by with her walker, that she had probably hurt herself really badly and would need a lot more help. The twinkle in her eye was back. Unfortunately, that burst of energy was short-lived.My routine now consisted of my morning and evening visit with Ruthie. A short visit was really all she could handle. I would try to come and give Rob a break in and around his work, but he rarely needed one. She had pretty much stopped eating when she came home in January. I had suggested that she ask for Pam as her home healthcare nurse. Pam had been my nurse in between surgeries and I knew Ruthie would like her. She was an angel. She made sure Ruthie was comfortable and hydrated, and would come and go whenever she was needed. Our joke now was that she was still here! I would open the door in the morning and I would hear her voice “Yep, I’m still here. Can you believe it, I can’t even die”! I would seem disappointed and we would chuckle and I would climb up on the bed and curl up for our morning coffee. I should say my morning coffee-she would just enjoy smelling mine. This went on for a few months.The pain was getting bad again and she was having trouble breathing. Pam said that Ruthie would need to go on Hospice because Pam wasn’t able to administer morphine. Ruthie didn’t want anyone else and Pam wanted to stay. Yet, once again, the system let us down. Hospice came and so did the morphine. That did not work well with Ruthie’s sensitivities. It only took a day or two before her personality seemed completely changed. She seemed angry and aggravated and she would shout when she said anything to us, and while we were trying to answer her, she would look at us with a lot of hand gestures and yell “Are you hearing what I’m saying?” We would both say yes and she would yell “Are you hearing the words in my mouth or the ones in my head?” Thankfully, we were only hearing the ones in her mouth. Anything we said to her would be answered with her yelling “You said that before. You said the same thing yesterday”!) This went on for a few days and Rob and I dubbed it as Groundhog Day. I kissed her goodnight and she yelled “I love you.” “I love you, too,” I responded and she yelled “No. I know you can’t feel it but I do!”The next morning when I crawled up on the bed for my morning chat and started to rub her back, she said it hurt to be touched and that no one could touch her anymore. It was horrible because all of the things she didn’t want to happen to her were happening. She never wanted to lose control of her thoughts, but the morphine was taking her away. And yet, it was the morphine that had helped her to breathe better.The next morning I quietly turned the door handle to sneak in, in case she was asleep and I hear “I’m Back”! I just started laughing. They had fired Hospice and stopped the morphine and she really was back. She said that she had been so disconnected on it. She said that she couldn’t feel her emotions or hear her own voice. I was laughing and telling her about our Groundhog experience and that she didn’t believe me when I told her that I knew she loved me. She said because she couldn’t feel her emotions she was sure I couldn’t hear them either. We had another six weeks of Ruthie defying the odds by staying alive on so little food or water. Pam said that usually people who stop eating go into a coma within a few days until they pass. That wasn’t how Ruthie wanted it. She still had quite a few things on her list. She wanted me to go through her closet and take anything I wanted. In fact, she wanted me to go ahead and take everything that morning. I told her I wasn’t going to walk by her with all of her clothes. I promised her I would take care of it if she ever actually did die, but it wasn’t something I could do right then, and promptly burst into tears. She said fine, but made me go get her blue sweater because wanted me to wear it now! Since she was still alive and kicking, she moved into “Get ‘er done mode,” and I was happy to have something constructive to help her with. She had picked out her tombstone and there was a lotus flower on it. She wanted to find a lotus charm for Rob to keep and one for her to take with her. I found one we liked at a jewelry store and immediately drove there to purchase it. She had wanted me to have it engraved, but the jeweler said it wouldn’t be back until next week. GREAT. The clock was ticking and I was not going to go home and tell her that the one thing she wanted to give Rob might not be back in time. I sat in the car and started calling the jewelers only to be told it took days. I explained why we might not have a few days and the sweet man I was talking to told me that if I came now he would personally do it. I decided on the way that I really wanted hers engraved also with “You will be missed.” (Boy was that an understatement). He handed them back to me beautifully done and wrapped in tissue and refused to take any money. He said he was honored to be able to do this. Ruthie could even affect people that hadn’t met her.In typical Ruthie style, she was still there the next week and she thought of getting a lotus charm for her friends, maybe give them out at the service. I suggested we mail it to them. Something I could do for her, Yeah! I went online and found perfect ones, immediately placed the order and started going through her phone, making a list of friends and their addresses. I asked her to explain why she chose a lotus. I wanted to understand why she wanted this with her since I really didn’t know anything about lotus flowers and didn’t think I was the only one! She said it is because they grow in a muddy environment yet rise above obstacles and stay beautiful. After thinking about it, just getting a charm in an envelope wasn’t right. I found a description that I thought explained it well and I strung the charms on silk string and attached the necklaces to the card. I sent them out the day after she died. I was so glad I had gone to the effort because this was something Ruthie would have done and her friends would feel her love when they received it. She was methodically moving down her list and she was determined to plan her own funeral. I think partly because she didn’t want Rob to have to do anything and partly because she liked being in charge and wanted to make sure all of her favorite foods were ordered and that her friends would have a marvelous time. It was a party ya know. Rob had sent out an e-mail letting everyone know that it was only a matter of time, and if they wanted to write anything that could be read at the service, or read it themselves if they were planning on being there, they could e-mail it now and he would read it to her. Ruthie informed us that she would decide if it could be read or not at the funeral! She said I could write something (but she would read it first) and also told me that I wasn’t allowed to go. The service would be in Maryland where she was from and she didn’t want me spending the money to go. Her brother John had already said I could stay with them. I told her she wasn’t the boss of me and that we could all say whatever we wanted and she would just have to sit back and watch and enjoy. She said “You wouldn’t do that!” And I just smiled! She laughed knowing full well that she would not be controlling that party.The pain was bad and she had finished her to “do list” and told Pam she was done. Pam said she would come that evening. She said that the medication was very strong and Ruthie would probably go to sleep and not wake up. We all said our goodbyes throughout the day, and after tucking her in after everyone had gone home, I had trouble believing this was it. I woke up the next morning and wasn’t sure what to do. Normally I would have walked over for morning coffee, but what now. As I was lying there trying to digest my new normal, I got my usual morning text from her. It simply said “Hi”. I laughed with tears rolling down my cheeks and thought “So Ruthie”. My daughter Amy was so upset because she hadn’t gotten to tell Ruthie goodbye. She had been at her Dad’s and I got a text from her asking how I was. I told her fine since Ruthie was still here. She texted back “What? I’ve been crying all morning and posted on facebook how much I miss her”. I called her and we laughed and I said I would pick her up and take her to see Ruthie later. When we arrived Ruthie was sitting up in her bed, and when I told her what had happened we were all cracking up. “Oh my God, how embarrassing, just let people think I died! I never even slept!” Amy got to say goodbye and Pam gave Ruthie a higher dose that night. She still didn’t sleep. As I was headed over to the house the next morning, my son, Jake, asked where I was going. “To check on Ruthie.” He gave me the weirdest look and said “Where?” I repeated myself and still watched the oddly puzzled look on his face. “What part of this are you not understanding?” He said, “Isn’t she dead? I saw that Amy posted it on Facebook yesterday and I just told Mrs. Wolker that she died.” I tried not to laugh and said “Not yet, so please let people know.” Ruthie and I got another chuckle out of that one when I told her my children were slowly killing her off day by day. I realized 2010 consisted of me trying to survive my own cancer, and 2011 consisted of enjoying every day with an amazing new friend I had only known a year but felt like a lifetime. I watched as she battled this disease with grace, strength, dignity, and my favorite, humor. I will always remember the sound of her sweet laugh, when some would think there was nothing left to laugh about. I’m not sure I ever got through her thick head just how many lives she touched.She got her last request. She was of sound mind and kept talking and making other people feel good until the end when she passed away quietly with Rob at her side, just the way she wanted: no Hospice, no tubes, and ready to go. And just to be different, she died on a night that no one expected. Her party that she planned was perfect, and I think she would have been pleased with everything that was written about her. I feel honored to have been able to take this journey with her and that we were able to laugh until the end.In our friend Dana’s words, “A piece of our heart goes with you on this next journey. We love you”!!