Today is my 54th birthday. Not usually considered a milestone birthday, but it is a poignant one for me. Fifty-four is the perpetual age of my friend Angie.
Angie called us “October babes.” She was born in 1950 and I in 1960. It didn’t feel like we were ten years apart in age because we had children in the same grades in school, although – bonus for me – she also had a child who was two years ahead of my elder daughter in school, which meant that I had a preview of coming attractions.
We were different in a lot of ways. I’m 5′ 1.5″ and Angie told people she was 5′ 12″ because she thought it sounded less daunting than saying she was six feet. Angie was raised in New York City and thought of our mutual home now as small. I was raised in a New England town of 200, so our current hometown of 20,000 was as large as the city I traveled twenty miles each way to attend high school. She was a trained artist and skilled in decorating and entertaining, with a great and quirky personal style, which included rocking her signature look – overalls. (Trust me – it was amazing.) I am not known for any of those things. She had a great talent for storytelling, complete with different voices and accents for the characters. I am better with the written word than the spoken word. She had a vast array of friends in various circles of the community and was well-known, while I had far fewer friends and was more comfortable working behind the scenes.
We were, however, both personally dedicated to volunteering, and met when I joined a site-based decision-making team at our district middle school. Angie had already been serving as one of three parent representatives and we quickly became friends. She helped me navigate the surprisingly intricate educational world and introduced me to a lot of new people and ideas.
Even though she had many friends, she was near and dear to all of them. She was a wonderful listener and a wise advisor. She was unfailingly kind and generous. The kind of person everyone hopes to have in their life.
Because her husband was a doctor, she had many friends in the medical community, but had a heightened awareness of the possible health calamities that happen to people of various ages. She talked about being worried about turning 50, because she had known so many people who succumbed to medical problems in that decade. When she turned 49, I gave her a box with a penny from every year of her life, which meant that I gave it to her with fifty pennies in it, and the promise to give her a new penny each year on her birthday. I thought already having fifty pennies in the box might help ease her into her next birthday.
Within weeks of her 50th birthday, a nagging cough turned into a diagnosis of stage 3 lung cancer.
It was a shock. Angie had never smoked, but through some combination of factors – growing up in a congested city when vehicles still used leaded gasoline? lung damage from infections? genetic vulnerability? secondhand smoke, as she was growing up before anyone had even thought of smoke-free rooms? – here she was with a frightening diagnosis.
Treatment was aggressive and achieved a remission. There was a big 50+1 birthday party, which served as a charity fundraiser. But, as we all feared, there were metastases that developed and more treatment with some short breaks but then the next problem and the next round of radiation or chemo until finally around the time Angie turned 54, there was nothing else that could be done.
After the new year started, I began searching for a 2004 penny for her box. We knew she would not live to see her 55th birthday and I hoped to get the penny to her while she was still able to realize it, but even the coin shops did not have them available so early in the year. Angie died in March.
When I found the penny later in the spring, I sent it to her husband to complete Angie’s box.
I still miss Angie and honor her memory. One of the ways I do that is by donating to the fund set up in her memory which raises money for scholarships and for the LUNGevity Foundation, which supports both lung cancer research and patients and their families.
Another way is to spread as much love as possible and to dedicate as much time as possible to caring about and serving others.
And for this year, Angie and I will both be 54.