by Marina Symcox
LaDonna once told me "When you have cancer, things become symbols, and everyday items are poignant." LaDonna gave me this advice one year ago this January. Her words brought tears to my eyes, which were tears of relief. This woman is a sage. Her advice resonates through the space between my ears. I am a student of LaDonna–the woman of steel.
Our woman of steel is made of snow. And so I cherish my recollection of her voice on the phone–telling me it was okay to cry over the fact my daughter had burned up her winter coat on a space heater. That coat had been carefully chosen the year before. I had bought the little girl’s coat just before I was leaving for Los Angeles, hoping for more cryosurgery. I never received the cryosurgery because my tumors had spread like weeds. The paradigm of my cancer was changed–I was inoperable. Dr. Chawla guessed I had 6 to 9 more months to live. And so I returned home from Los Angeles as a terminal cancer victim. Summer months followed. I sometimes found comfort as I touched the shimmering purple sleeve of the little coat as it hung among a child’s summer dresses. Winter came, and Miranda looked beautiful in the shimmering purple coat. I was approaching the end of the 9 months Dr. Chawla had predicted for me. I couldn’t walk into a store anymore, but no matter. I had planned ahead last year and Miranda had a pretty coat. A coat she would keep for the rest of her life, as a keepsake of her mother. A snowstorm came, an infrequent event in Oklahoma. Miranda put on her shimmering purple coat and ran down the street to play with her friends. Miranda tossed her coat on a space heater at her friend’s house, and melted the back of her coat. I slip into despair when I see the coat. The keepsake coat is ruined! I can’t replace it, and I cry!
For some reason for which I shall never know, LaDonna Backmeyer knew she needed to call me the day after our shimmering purple coat melted. My knees almost buckle when my son tells me who is on the phone. LaDonna had never called me before. The woman of courage, who wrote such beautiful e-mails, was waiting on the other end of the phone. She was waiting to talk to me. I pour out my story of about a ruined child’s coat. I feel ashamed about the silliness of my despair, because I know the coat is "just stuff." LaDonna explains that "just stuff" can be great symbols for a cancer patient. LaDonna tells me how her friends sent her funny little items through the mail after she was first diagnosed with cancer. LaDonna offers to buy me another little girl’s coat and mail it to Oklahoma. I hang up the phone, and I feel calm. LaDonna has very long arms for hugs.
After the phone call, I no longer fretted about the melted back of Miranda’s little coat. Somehow the coat’s white stuffing had fused together in the burned patch. The stuffing hung out of the melted purple shell, but it wouldn’t fall out. So I put Miranda’s little shimmering purple coat back on her body, and she looked beautiful as long as I looked at her from the front or the side. I immediately started calling that coat "LaDonna’s Coat." I cherish the coat because it is burned, and because the stuffing never fell out, and because it is shimmering purple. Purple is the color of Grape Soda. I hear Grape Soda is currently LaDonna’s favorite drink. Oh, how the connections and symbols whirl in my cancer patient’s head.
Grape soda, LaDonna’s shimmering purple coat, and Purple Pirates! I live in Bristow Oklahoma, home of the proud Bristow Purple Pirates. Bristow is a very humble town, full of citizens who care about their leiomyosarcoma citizen. Our tiny phone book has a purple cover. I notice the ice-scraper in my car is purple. The Bristow Walmart features as much purple merchandise as possible. Walmart takes care of its Purple Pirate customers. I am so glad that LaDonna likes Grape Soda. My world is covered in rich purple, the color of Grape Soda. My son’s basketball uniforms are a deep shiny purple, Grape Soda purple. Yesterday I was bending over to pick up the mound of basketball uniforms left on my son’s bedroom floor. I found myself thinking of LaDonna and Dignity. I wasn’t feeling angry at my son for leaving his uniforms in a heap on the floor. All the Purple Pirate things in my world remind me of Courage and Grace. All because LaDonna likes Grape Soda. And I want to tell you one more thing about Miranda’s shimmering purple coat, which is actually LaDonna’s coat. I believe its fabric captures essence of Grape Soda bubbles. Both are shimmering, effervescent, and ephemeral.
Just like LaDonna.
Marina Symcox, student of LaDonna Backmeyer