JOY is found in Each Other–A Sister’s Tribute

By Maggie Johnson

(Almost a year ago, The Pink Fund learned that we had been chosen by one Mary Catherine Guirey to receive donations in her name after she passed.  Mary loved St. Patrick’s Day.  For Mary life was a parade of the people she loved and the time they spent together.  Mary’s parting gift to The Pink Fund left a legacy of love and caring for many survivors that came behind her, as we were able to make many bill payments due the generosity of Mary’s friends and family, who continue to contribute.   As the first anniversary of her death approaches, we asked her sister Maggie to write a tribute to Mary.)

Maggie and Mary

Where I Stood

I remember exactly where I stood October 6, 2008 when my sister Mary called me early in the morning. She was decidedly not a morning person, so her early call was odd enough. But my concern grew when she said, “The doctor’s office called and they want me to come in to get my test results. That can’t be good.” And then, “Will you come with me?” I think the word “yes” flew out of my mouth before I even had a chance to realize how scary this was… for both of us.

For anyone undergoing treatment or with a loved one in treatment for breast cancer, they too, have a similar moment that unleashes buried emotions every time they recall it. The concern for my sister, the unknown challenges she’d face; it was all surreal and terrifying. It’s only the beginning of an emotional roller coaster that, regardless of the outcome, leaves you and your loved ones changed forever

My sister’s journey through treatment was two and a half years long. For someone so full of life as Mary, it boggled my mind that she should have to face such a hardship. Always a gregarious, positive person who sought out fun wherever she could find it, Mary faced down numerous set backs that would have made others buckle. One of the worst parts of treatment for her was the isolation. Cancer takes over your calendar and, thus, robs you of time spent with people you love. For someone like Mary who was the very definition of a people person, this was a punishment beyond anything she envisioned.

 Stronger and  More Determined

Ever trusting, Mary often was disappointed as she navigated the confusing state of our healthcare system, but from that learned to take more control of her own health choices and destiny. She learned not to take things for granted and saw more clearly the real priorities in her life. At about the two year mark, she had finally emerged from seemingly endless treatments and surgeries a stronger more determined person. She was excited to get her life back on track—even to enjoy having a smaller bust line, something she ironically always wanted.

We were shocked to find out months later, however, that the digestive problems she had been having were due to tumors in her liver. She was supposed to be done with cancer. It was finally her time to call her self a “survivor.” But, after two months of further treatment, Mary left us March 19, 2011.

 A Bad Dream

As family and friends of people lost to breast cancer know, the first year seems like a bad dream. Everything reminds you of your loved one; even the simple change of seasons evokes memories. You trudge through, much like enduring a brutal winter. The anxiety felt as certain holidays got closer seemed unbearable for me. Thanksgiving dinner without Mary’s fun pre-dinner menu planning and saucy cocktail recipes was rough. Not being with her to celebrate what would have been her fiftieth birthday was just cruel. And, now we’re approaching one of her favorite holidays, St. Patrick’s Day. Without her flurry of activity—making homemade Irish Cream, wrapping up corned beef sandwiches to take downtown in her backpack to the parade, and gathering with people she loved—well, it just seems impossible. She loved St. Patrick’s Day so much that a friend of hers teased that she waited to pass away until after March 17 last year because she just wanted one more celebration.

 St Mary’s Day

And, she got it. The years of love and good will Mary poured out of her heart came back to her on Sunday, March 13, 2011. Some of Mary’s closest friends brought their own St. Patrick’s Day (or “St. Mary’s Day” as they called it) parade to her. On the day she usually would be celebrating in Corktown, they organized a 200-person parade down her street complete with a clown car,fire engine and even the mayor of Ferndale. She was house bound and knew that her health was failing, so this was perfect timing and a beautiful thing for her to see. When she looked out her window and it dawned on her what was happening, I literally saw her years of pain melt away. If even for a few moments, she had joy and she savored every second of it. Though I don’t relish passing this holiday without Mary, the memory of how her friends made the day such a joyful celebration for her will always make me smile. I wish that everyone going through such a terrible time in his or her life had such an experience to lift them. Mary’s very real and loving impact on others was returned to her that day in a big way.

 What I wish I’d told her . .  .

A year has almost passed now and the varied emotions that are bubbling up for me are strong. I think about things I wish I could ask her, things I wish I’d told her. Did I properly express how proud I was of her strength? How much I cherished her friendship and sisterly devotion? So much of what has happened in this past year that I wish I could share is because of her absence. We’ve gathered to honor her wishes by spreading her ashes and celebrating her life. Bonds have strengthened between many of us. And she’s inspired many of us to do things with our lives, take opportunities we might have otherwise ignored. One of her best friends and I were discussing how we’ve coped when she said that “Yes, there has definitely been a lack of joy in my life lately.” That is the Mary factor and I understand what she means. But, I’d like to think of how pleased Mary would be that this friend and I have grown closer and helped each other through this year in our shared grief.

 I am going to be a mother!

I don’t like to assume that I know what she would think about everything, but precious moments we shared together on her journey come to mind. For instance, Mary knew that my husband and I were trying to get pregnant. On one of her treatment days, I helped her into the car one so she didn’t slip on the ice. When I got in on the driver’s side, she turned to me and said, “You’re going to make a great mother.” Well, she might as well of handed me a big fat diamond. Now that I am entering my second trimester of pregnancy, I wish dearly that she were here to share in my journey. Bringing a child into the world without an Aunt Mary seems almost unimaginable, but I feel lucky to carry with me these moments of love that Mary gave out like candy.

A Priceless Journey

The time I spent with her during her journey was excruciating and priceless. Excruciating because I watched Mary suffer through countless indignities, but also priceless because I watched her grow like a butterfly. She never knew how strong she was, but through many difficulties, she rarely complained and never lost her sense of humor. It was powerful to witness and changed both my perspective on life and what I value. I know all too well the downside of what Mary endured, but try to remember her example that there is always joy to be had in life. She knew you just need to look for it in the right place… each other.

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  1. Sue

     /  March 17, 2012

    Beautiful, Maggie….and don’t think for a second that you lack one bit of Mary’s strength, beauty, love and heart….you have it all….and a beautiful way with your words that gives us all a sneak into your wonderful memories. xo Sue

  2. Leslie Green

     /  March 20, 2012

    Beatiful, Maggie.


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