The first time I saw her, I was captivated by her smile.
It seemed to display the beauty that was inside her heart, it was truly breathtaking. I was lost at sea until I found Fiona, stumbling around trying to find success personally and professionally. A quote from Lao Tzu sums it up so well, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
In my post on June 1 2017 I talked about the news we received about Fiona and I mentioned the cancer hospital.
From the outside it appears inconspicuous, but inside doctors and nurses are doing a remarkable job saving people’s lives, while patients are fighting for theirs and coping with remarkable adversity.
I recently drove past that same cancer hospital in a taxi, but on this occasion, I had Fiona’s ashes in the back seat with me.
It was her final journey to her resting place in the graveyard in my home town of Glenties, Co. Donegal. It was a surreal moment and one that hammered home the fact that life would never be the same again.
Fiona had spent two years attending that cancer center and received almost ninety days of chemotherapy. Her doctors called her “the special one” – she had surpassed their wildest expectations beating every statistic, she was a miracle!
Sadly, Fiona’s fight came to an end.
In February of this year, we received the news that her treatment had stopped working and we scrambled desperately for other options.
It seemed that the only option was a clinical trial at the University of Chicago. The doctors heading up the trial accepted her pending a final medical. Because her type of cancer was so rare, they were excited to have her on the trial.
Fiona had small cell cervical cancer with about 100 cases diagnosed in the United States each year. Because these tumors are so rare, the cause is not yet fully understood. This was an exciting opportunity for the doctors to understand more about this uncommon cancer.
For Fiona, she was hoping it would give her more time but more importantly, she wanted to give others with the disease a better chance of survival.
The treatment was about a ninety-minute drive from where we lived, depending on traffic, so this was possibly a three or four hour return journey on top of an eight hour treatment day.
We were a family, Fiona, Josie our dog and I.
We had to consider how we were going to look after Josie as I was working, and Fiona would be spending a lot time in hospital. After many conversations and tears we decided that we needed to find Josie a new home.
An acquaintance was looking for a dog as her own had died several months prior. We introduced her to Josie and they immediately bonded. They spent a few weeks getting to know each other and then we dropped Josie off at her new home. It was extremely sad and distressing to come home without Josie but we knew it was the best thing to do for her.
In life there are certain moments, that while they are playing out, you sense something life changing is happening.
For us, that moment was the phone call Fiona received about an hour after we got home from her medical at the University of Chicago. It turned out that her liver was so badly damaged from all the chemo that she was unfit to attend the trial. We were both devastated.
Ironically that day was April 1st.
A few days later, we met with our local doctors at the cancer center and they wanted to try one more throw of the dice and they prescribed an oral chemo drug. Fiona was starting to have more severe issues with her liver around the same time, but with her zest for life and her positivity she wanted to try everything she could to continue to live.
The doctors told us that we would know quickly if the drug was working. With her liver deteriorating very quickly and in a lot of discomfort, they stopped the chemo drug after only a week. They gave her one, maybe two weeks to live and recommended we find suitable hospice care.
We interviewed several hospice organizations, but settled with Northwestern who had provided Fiona with such excellent treatment and care for over two years. Fiona wanted to die at home, so they came and prepared our home and us mentally and spiritually for Fiona’s passing. They are remarkable people who do an amazing job.
As difficult as this time was, they helped us cope with this excruciating situation. Very quickly, Fiona’s condition deteriorated and she became bedridden three days after the final diagnosis from the doctor.
As the news spread about her condition, her friends and neighbors rallied round. They all came to see her and although she was weak, in and out of consciousness, she recognized them. She had a smile and positive words to share with them as they recalled happier times. They were exceptionally supportive as were all my colleagues and my employer.
On the afternoon of Sunday April 28th Fiona passed.
That morning she seemed agitated, and while trying to make her comfortable in bed she whispered to me, “I don’t see the point in this”. She was having difficulty just lying in bed, not her normal positive self.
Later, three of her friends called around, all independently of each other. As the afternoon progressed, Fiona’s breathing became irregular. Her friends were gathered around the bed and I was sitting by her side, holding her hand.
She looked around the room, then back into my eyes and took her final breath.
It was a beautiful moment, one that will stay with me until the time comes to take my final breath. Her passing into her next life was as beautiful as the life she lived here on earth.
As I made the calls to the hospice and dealt with the funeral director, I felt Fiona’s spirit guide and support me. She was still there calling the shots.
We had a beautiful memorial service for her at our local golf club, Cress Creek.
Golf was a big part of Fiona’s life, and she loved spending time with her friends whilst hitting the wee white ball around. Even through her treatment she would not let her condition dictate how she lived her life. Regardless of the challenges, she was on the golf course enjoying golf and nature all around her.
Fiona’s other love was fitness and Orange Theory Fitness. She treasured their support, and encouragement during her illness.
Throughout the two years of treatment, she always joked about spreading her ashes in one of the ponds at the golf course. She would comment that most of her golf balls are in the pond on hole number nine and that’s where she would want to be when she eventually passed.
As the time got closer, she became more considered on exactly where she would want to be laid to rest. Shortly after the disappointing news regarding the trial, she told me that she wanted to be buried in our family grave in Glenties. I was surprised by her request but deeply touched.
So, we began that final journey, passing the cancer hospital and to the airport.
Along the way there were some strange moments, going through security at O’Hare and Dublin for instance. Normally impatient and busy border police became very accommodating once they understood what was in the small wooden box I was carrying. Having the urn in the overhead bin while we were flying across the Atlantic was another surreal moment.
Once back home in Glenties, family and friends gathered around and we had another beautiful ceremony in the chapel.
Our priest Father Gerard and the amazing music made it a special occasion. So many friends and family were there to help and share their memories of Fiona. She made a lasting impression on so many people without even realizing.
Laying her remains in the grave was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The Irish do funerals probably better than anybody and this funeral was no exception. In true Irish fashion, we had a few drinks in her memory and sang a few songs, just as Fiona would have wanted.
They say you should live your life the way you want to be remembered – Fiona truly did.
Her positive attitude, energy and zest for life never wavered. We should all aspire to live our lives as she did.
Fiona was one of those special people that uplifted everyone.
I will miss her and her beautiful smile and contagious laugh. Just being in her presence changed my life for the better. She saw something in me as she saw in everyone she met; she saw their light. Even when her body grew weak, her spirit increased each day, there was a light in her heart. She loved her culture and tradition and regardless of how the day was, Fiona had her million- dollar smile.
I think back to the first time that I saw that smile, the treasured time that we had together and how it has gone by in a flash. Treasure your time with loved ones, it can be snatched from you so very quickly.