I started writing this post last weekend, hoping to articulate my admiration and respect for my brave friend. But Tracey passed away on Wednesday, April 10th, before I had a chance to send this to her. I'm giving a copy of it to her husband and two children, though. In the midst of grief I believe it's important to hear that your loved one's life mattered. So, this is my tribute to Tracey.
That Woman Walking
We live in a neighborhood that says, Come outside and play. It’s safe here! Our yards are trimmed. Our houses are painted the color of the landscape— the browns, tans, and gray of the sage brush and earth, with a buttery, sunrise yellow mixed in every now and then. As neighbors we are in agreement with one another on the issues that allow us to live in peaceful harmony. We will cut our grass. Our children will wear bicycle helmets. We will clean up after our dogs on the open space paths. Visitors to our tidy corner of the world might nod and think, Such a wonderful place to live. Such a wonderful place to raise a family. And it is.
The first time I saw Tracey she was walking her son to Kindergarten, her preschool- aged daughter in tow. Tracey’s hair was cropped close to her skull in the way that announces to every passer-by, This is not a style choice! I’m fighting an unimaginable battle right now. And she was. But even so, as the months wore on the image of them walking the stretch between home and school became part of the landscape. Whether snow or sun shine, Tracey and the kids would head out the door, calling hello and chatting with the parade of other moms and school-aged children as they walked to school.
By the time Tracey's daughter started school the following year Tracey’s hair had returned, along with her confidence that she was winning the war. She gradually lost that pale, stretched look that cancer and chemotherapy bring, and I noticed that after dropping her kids off at school she often kept walking. Through the neighborhood. Into the foothills. Sometimes toward the coffee shop near the grocery store. I wondered what she thought about on those long, solitary walks. I wondered what it meant to slowly have the world restored to her. So, one day I caught up with her and as we began walking together I asked her.
We didn’t walk together every day, or even every week, but over the next couple of years every now and then our morning walks would align and Tracey and I would talk. We became friends. Sometimes the subject would drift to our children, since hers are the same ages as my older two girls, but mostly we talked about Tracey’s battle with breast cancer. I was a curious audience and talking seemed her way of understanding what had just happened to her. Making sense of the thing that had ravaged her body and soul. She expressed a desire to write about it too, and she spoke openly with me about some of the terrible, soul-trying moments she had faced.
I don’t know if Tracey ever sat down at her computer to put into words her experiences with breast cancer. What I do know is that she got her life back. She worked out and made her body strong again. She reached toward the deep fulfillment that comes from being the kind of mother you want for your children. And she started planning and spending more time with her friends. Let’s celebrate the kids being back in school she said, when her daughter started first grade. Soon Tracey had organized a huge brunch party, inviting both close friends and newer acquaintances from the “mommy parade” that walked the same stretch each day between home and school. The next year she sent out invitations once again. Let’s celebrate the fall, she said. Only before all the invitations had been opened she got sick again. Really sick this time. Sick in a way that made her take a deep breath and say to me, So what? So, I’m sick. I want to celebrate the fall anyway.
Tracey’s hard-earned head of hair thinned and fell away last fall right along with the leaves on the trees. By the time snow was on the ground her face was once again pale and drawn, but still determined. Every time we talked it was as if she held her hands out and plainly said, This is what it is. And she kept walking her kids to school each day until the time arrived when she was too sick. As we eased into 2013 the tender ministrations of Tracey’s husband and family members kept her wrapped in a safe cocoon, but the parade of moms relentlessly circled her front door, offering hot meals and baked goods. Friendship and encouragement. It’s unbearable to watch your friend continue to fade in the spotlight of this kind of love and support, and yet it is spring and here we are.
There will come a time when Tracey’s children will want to know more and more about their mother. Of course their father and extended family members will have stories and experiences to share, but I wanted to offer them another point of view. What I would tell them is that, To know your mother was to see her scheduling her entire day around that morning and afternoon walk to and from school, always offering a friendly smile and a positive attitude to everyone she passed. At first some of those faces, including mine, were strangers. But it wasn’t long until we were all numbered as her friends.
How many mornings did I get in my car and start to drive and see Tracey’s solitary figure walking up ahead, soaking in the calm of the landscape even as she struggled to fight and repair, fight and repair? I wonder if she sometimes felt at a loss like the rest of us. It’s hard to believe the amount of grief and suffering quietly occurring behind the facade of our safe, well-cared for neighborhood. It’s not that we’re better than any other town, but this is the place we call home. This is where Tracey made her home, where she chose to raise her children. And this isn’t what any of us, in a million years, would have expected or chosen. But I believe Tracey has always known that there is solace to be found in forward momentum. Some mornings she probably wasn’t always sure where she was going or which direction she would turn, but that never deterred her. She just kept walking. She is and will always be that woman walking.