One year after her fifth child was born, my friend Paige Hardy collapsed on the street while running errands. Paige pulled herself up with the help of some pedestrians and went home thinking she was just tired. And who wouldn’t be tired with a 10-year-old, an eight-year-old, a six-year old, a four-year-old, and a baby? She had always been healthy. Never sick. Never had the need for an internist. She had babies so regularly, her obstetrician was her main doctor.
When Paige got home, she still had difficulty breathing. She couldn’t fill her lungs with air. The air stopped high up where her heart was and refused to go down to the tiny air sacs at the base of the lungs. Going through a pile of mail on her desk, she found a card advertising a new health clinic around the corner from her apartment. She called and doctors had her come in right away.
After examining Paige, doctors at the clinic sent her in an ambulance to the hospital, where a liter and a half of fluid was pulled from her chest. Days later, the lab found ovarian cells in her chest fluid. She was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer. The five-year survival rate is 17 percent.
When she called me to tell me, I burst into tears.
“Why are you crying?” Paige asked.
“It’s a terrible diagnosis,” I said, trying to stop the tears from clogging my throat.
“Don’t worry, God has a plan for me. God picked me.”
“How can you say that?”
“I just know it,” Paige said.
I thought Paige was crazy. She had a faith in God, which as a New Yorker I lacked. I grew up in this somewhat godless city where faith was something I wore on Sunday morning at church and never thought about again. But only if I managed to get up in time to go. Years passed in our family where we didn’t go to church except on Christmas Eve. We were Christmas-only Christians.
I had met Paige when our babies were one week old through a mutual friend who organized a newborn playgroup. Our babies were too young to play, but as mothers we needed an outlet to talk about sleepless nights and feeding routines, while sipping wine. Paige was a blond beauty from Kentucky who fell in love with New York City in her 20s and never left. She was always up for a margarita and an adventure. As her family grew from one child to five, she would take one day off a week, leave the kids with a nanny, and explore the Lower East Side or Tribeca or Brooklyn and find interesting places to eat and to shop.
She consumed all New York had to offer, often in leopard-print outfits. Leopard was her favorite color; it was mine too. I had a leopard print carpet in my apartment. I could have a baby play on it because any stain would just blend in to the pattern. Leopard is a lifestyle choice. I always joked with her that I owned more leopard than she did.
During her six months of chemo, her friends organized a meal service so she and her family didn’t have to worry about shopping or cooking. I would drop off a gallon of milk and orange juice every week, until she had gotten so many groceries, she didn’t have room in her refrigerator. People wanted to help. We all wanted to take the cancer away.
Whenever I asked what I could do, she would say, “Pray for me.” A hard task for me. I felt foolish praying. I had been such a bad Christian, I had forgotten the Hail Marys drilled into me by the nuns at my Catholic lower school. Later in my 30s, after about two minutes of reflection, I had abandoned Catholicism for an Episcopalian church because it had a better family program. I was lax with my beliefs. Even in church, I had to consult the printed program to follow all the words of the Lord’s Prayer until I got to: “For Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
I prayed for Paige every night, quietly to myself. I said, “God, please take Paige’s cancer away. Amen.” Less of a prayer, than a cry for help. I repeated the words over and over until I fell asleep.
Prior to her ovariectomy and hysterectomy, Paige wanted to have a prayer circle at our church. About 15 women gathered. Paige was wearing a long platinum-blond wig she called the “Bombshell.” She lost weight from the chemo and joked to us she had the body of a supermodel. We stood in a circle holding hands. Our rector said some prayers out loud. After he finished, we stood there silently.
“Would anyone like to add their own prayer?” he said.
I think I said something along the lines of, “God if anyone can handle cancer it is Paige. May God take care of Paige during her surgery and give her children and her husband, Tripp, strength.”
I felt my prayer was an impotent, useless cry into the sea of honking horns outside the church on Madison Avenue. I couldn’t help but think how unfair it was. Why did she, someone without risk factors, someone who breast-fed five children, get this? In my mind she had been hit by a car while standing on a street corner, minding her own business. A cancer car. How can God do these things?
Paige finished up the prayer circle by saying, “Thank you for praying for me. I know God has a plan for me and I am not afraid.” I was astonished by her faith.
Paige had the surgery days later. A month after, the cancer was receding. A year later she was in remission from stage-four ovarian cancer. Her hair grew back, she gained weight. She looked like her normal self. She went back to driving her white Chevy Suburban, named the Beast, around the Upper East Side to pickups and drop-offs, waving at me from the driver’s seat whenever our paths crossed. Her kids were in three different schools.
She went back to charity work — her favorite was the Central Park Conservancy. She went back to church because God and Memorial Sloan Kettering had saved her life.
One August, her eldest son and my two boys went away to an overnight football camp together. We decided to take our remaining kids, her four and my daughter, on the East River ferry. We took the boat to Williamsburg, ate pizza at Grimaldi’s, and let our kids play in the playground sprinklers. I noticed she had some difficulty walking. We sat down on the bench and she asked me to feel the back of her ankles and calves. They were rocks. There was no flexibility, no normal give of the muscles. She could hardly flex her feet.
“Why do you have this?” I asked.
“It’s a side effect from all the chemo I had.”
“How can you walk at all?” I said.
“I just do. Compared to what I have been through this is nothing. I just walk.”
I felt ashamed, I took my own physical ability for granted. I had my health and yet what did I do about it? Nothing at all. I had more workout clothes than workouts. In the fall, a friend had suggested I try spinning at Soul Cycle. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I had heard horror stories about how difficult the classes are. I was going to take care of myself. I started going three times a week regularly. I walked all over New York City, sometimes walking up to 60 blocks in one stretch to pick up vegetables at a good market far from my house. I was determined to give thanks for my physicality and strength, while I had it. But thanks to whom, I thought?
Three and a half years into remission, she had difficulty digesting food. She had emergency gall bladder surgery, but it did not help. Paige was readmitted into Sloan Kettering when doctors discovered a funky lymph node in her liver, which they could not treat until her bilirubin levels went down.
My husband and I visited her, after a Soul Cycle class, bringing a bacon double cheeseburger from JG Melon’s, as a respite from hospital food.
“Can they take out part of my liver?” Paige asked my doctor husband.
“The liver is like a large city with seven districts, if doctors have to remove part of it you can survive.”
“Good news!” Paige said as she bit into the burger. Nurses came in to give her pain meds and we left her and Tripp.
I despaired. “What about a liver transplant?” I asked my husband, Stephen.
He shook his head, “The boards who decide these things never give fresh organs to stage-four cancer patients.”
“But she’s in remission.” He shook his head again. We walked home in silence.
Paige had been readmitted into the hospital several times to drain the fluid filling her belly. Her skin turned yellow. Doctors pierced her stomach with a drain so she could comfortably walk around. Her liver’s bilirubin levels never hit normal levels to be treated safely with chemo.
TO BE CONTINUED
Kristen Fealy was a national news correspondent at the Fox News Channel before becoming a mother. She has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and is working on a novel.