A friend once told me, after the docs gave him his cancer death sentence, that he hadn’t been very good at showing people how to live but “by God, I’m going to show them how to die.”
He did, quietly, with honor and dignity. And I think of him, one of too many journalists and friends I have helped bury, almost every day.
I started to think of my old friend tonight when I reflected on the life of Peggy Arrington, a pretty woman with a quick laugh and self-deprecating sense of humor even in the depth of battle with cancer.
I first made Peggy’s acquaintance when I was doing the annual Acts of Kindness feature for American Profile magazine. I have the good fortune of getting that assignment each year.
Basically, the deal is that the magazine, with its 10 million circulation, reaches out to its mostly smalltown newspaper audience and requests that folks nominate other people for their genuine acts of kindness each year.
After consulting with my editor, who culls through the sea of nominees, I get a couple of fistfuls of nomination letters to go through and try to come up with the best ones to interview, to tell the stories of human kindness, to let people know there are good people out there. Most of us are good, after all.
And we all are in this struggle together.
One of the stories I chose last year – the feature annually appears around the holidays – sprang from a letter written by Peggy, who lived in Jacksonville, Fla.
She described her own battle with breast cancer and how a woman she didn’t know all that well changed her life and her outlook. So I called and interviewed her as well as other people involved in the battle she was having.
The story I wrote from those interviews was boiled down for the publication, but here’s the draft of what I turned in, prior to the editing, etc.:
When Peggy Arrington, 55, was diagnosed with breast cancer, the prospect of the treatment terrified her almost as much as the disease.
With husband Steven, 61, by her side, she began bi-weekly chemo sessions, the object to shrink the tumor with the hope of limiting the surgery to a lumpectomy.
But he wasn’t able to take her to the routine follow-up visits, which included a shot the day after each chemo to stimulate bone marrow to produce more white blood. And during the “off” week from chemo, she went to the clinic for blood tests.
She admits she easily could have made those treks herself, but she gladly accepted the offer of Dorian Eng, a member of her rubber-stamp club, to take her.
“What nobody knew is that I have an extreme fear of doctors, needles, hospitals and anything in connection with them,” says Peggy. “When I finally let out my deep, dark secret, Dorian devised a plan to distract me every time I had to face an injection or a blood test.”
It’s all in the headgear: as soon as Peggy sat down “waiting for my blood to be drawn, hoping I wouldn’t hyperventilate. Dorian pulled a hat out of her handbag and put it on.
“It was the silliest thing I had ever seen – kind of like a black aviator hat with big blue rubber spikes coming out all over it. Before I knew it, the blood test was over and I had laughed through it.
“Dorian wore the hat out and you should have seen the smile from people in the waiting room…”
A happy tradition was born and every visit after that, Dorian pulled a different hat – from Mickey ears to a tiara with pink feathers to a clown hat, never the same hat twice. It never failed in its mission to make the needle fear pass but also get smiles from other patients.
Peggy’s chemo failed and eventually she had a mastectomy, but “if there are truly angels on earth, I think Dorian is one of them.”
Dorian, who lives with husband, Doug, 56, a couple miles from the Arringtons, says she got more out of it than Peggy.
“I didn’t consciously think of doing anything. It was just how can I help? I always love a good laugh, so I pulled that hat out of the bag the first time and it worked.
“I really got to love her during that time. That was the gift to me.”
As I normally do, to alert people that their stories are going to appear in whatever magazine I might be working for in my never-ending effort to make a living, I planned on picking up the phone in November and telling both Peggy and Dorian the story - "Dorian's Hats" was its title in the roundup of good acts -- was about to appear.
Peggy beat me to it, sending me an e-mail, wondering when the story would appear. Because of the nature of her illness, I sensed a fair amount of desperation in her e-mail, that normally cold form of communication.
So I picked up the phone to call her.
She told me the news hadn’t been good, that the struggle, though it continued, was wearing on her. Basically, she wasn’t going to make it.
The cancer may have been winning, but the spirit wasn’t faltering.
She thanked me for writing the story, for allowing her to share the tale of Dorian’s kindness to her. She laughed again at Dorian’s silly hats and said it was a pleasure to meet me.
And she thanked me for my own sensitivity in writing the story.
Well, I told her then, and I still feel that way, it was my privilege.
Sure, it was a simple little story, but it may give people with cancer a reason to hope. And it may inspire those who have friends in that struggle to jump in and do whatever it takes to make the fight at least more bearable.
I called her back a month or two later to see how things were going. Not well, she said. Not well at all. She again thanked me for telling the story.
I thanked her for opening up to me and told her she was helping other people. Promised to send good thoughts her way. And I said goodbye.
I also called Dorian, who told me she was doing her best to help, but her dear friend was slipping… badly, quickly.
Late this afternoon, I received a note from Dorian that both made my day and broke my heart:
I just wanted to let you know our friend Peggy passed away a few days ago losing her battle with breast cancer. She was a kind and gentle soul that touched many lives through her caring ways. Thank you again for including us in your article last December. It is a gift her family and I will treasure for a lifetime.
With Dorian’s help, Peggy Arrington showed people how to be brave, how to fight and how to die.
But mostly she showed people how to live each day…. Even if you fear the needle…. And how to be thankful for grace.