Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Request

My very good friend Tabitha (aka TabiKat), who was with me in Pittsburgh this past weekend, is participating in an event called Relay for Life this coming weekend. The following is taken from the letter she sent out to her friends and family. I'm posting this because I could not possibly say it better in my own words.

Some of you know Liz Schmerling already. She went to Washington University with me and was a good friend during my four years. She's one of those incredibly organized & smart people who not only has her life under control, but is happy to help you conquer whatever is challenging you. She's also my most dignified and graceful friend, the kind you expect might one day host dinner parties for celebrated dignitaries but unwittingly steal the show from such guests with her own beauty, posture, and charm. While the rest of us were eating mac and cheese out of a plastic cup, Liz was inviting us over for three-course Shabbat dinners complete with china, placemats, and a specially mixed CD of background music. Before countless formal dances, Liz came to my (and other girls') cosmetic rescue, turning my ponytail into a beautiful work of art with her "extra" supply of bobby pins, baby's breath, and rhinestones.

Liz never did these with the slightest air of vanity or pretentiousness, but rather as a humble gift to the rest of us. She enjoyed spoiling her friends, showing us that we deserved the nicest things. She went out of her way to always have "extra" so that no one would be left out. I believe she gets it from her parents.

When Paco, Cara, and I visited Liz this last weekend, we got to know her parents. I saw in them all the things I most love about Liz. The way they care for everyone around them, the way they protect the dignity of those they love, the way they make their guests truly feel at home in their house. I remembered a time when Liz's mother took a group of Liz's friends out for dinner to celebrate Liz's birthday. It was an expensive meal, so at first a small group had been invited. But as Liz's mother met more of Liz's friends, she just kept inviting more of us, not willing to leave anyone out.

The memories go on and on, but what matters now is the present. Liz is fighting a vicious form of brain cancer, and I am very afraid for her. This time last year, I was hopeful as the chemo and radiation seemed to be killing the last bits of tumor that surgeons could not remove. In October, Liz finished her treatment and was given a clean bill of health. I assumed the danger had passed. Unfortunately, the cancer returned almost immediately, this time growing faster and spreading further into her brain. Surgery is no longer possible, and the chemo and radiation treatments have not slowed the cancer's growth.

I knew things were bad for Liz. I had heard it in her voice over the last few months. She was still as cheery and optimistic as ever, but something had changed. It began with occasional trouble coming up with the right word to use, but in recent weeks, things had gotten worse. So Cara, Paco, and I flew from Chicago, New York, and St. Louis to spend some time with Liz between rounds of chemo. Liz's parents called me the week before our trip to get our flight information and give us an update. She wanted us to be prepared. After that conversation, I felt like I was preparing to head into a battle, unsure of what I might find there, scared I wouldn't have the courage to be the friend I wanted to be.

What I found was both shocking and inspiring. Despite her hair loss, bloated face (as a result of steroid treatments), and near-complete paralysis of the right side of her body, Liz is still beautiful, graceful, and poised. Despite her inability to construct complete sentences, Liz is still intelligent, thoughtful, and engaged. But for the first time, Liz was not able to entertain her guests with fancy meals, fine wine, and provocative discussion. For the first time, Liz could not take care of herself, and she could not take care of me.

I so badly want this to be the moment where I say, "For once, I was able to take care of her." But that's not what happened.

I felt so powerless to help her. For the most part, I still do. Cara, Paco, and I spent a good deal of time bemoaning this fact. And once we realized that we can't cure her cancer, we took a step back and asked ourselves, what can we do?

We can help her maintain her dignity. We can honor her courageous fight. We can send notes and packages to brighten her days in small but important ways. We can pray. We can be advocates for health policies that reduce the risk of cancer. The list goes on.

Relay for Life is this weekend in St Louis, raising funds for the American Cancer Society. Obviously many of us can't be there with Tabitha. So she, and now I as well, are asking those who love us and love Liz to send in donations to the American Cancer Society in Liz's honor. We know that sending donations to the ACS will not save Liz. But they may very well help save someone else. And I cannot think of a better way to honor a girl who lives her life trying to help others.

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