It’s funny how your mind works when you have a little down time.

The girls and I were enjoying a trip to Panama City Beach, filling our days with waves and sand, a little mini golf, time at the pier, and travels to nearby Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Maybe because we jam-packed our vacation with fun, I found myself experiencing bizarre dreams when my head finally hit the pillow at night.

One nightmare in particular stood out, and I couldn’t shake it. Finally, it dawned on me that this unpleasant dream carried a taint of truth.

In my dream, I uncovered a family secret that my maternal grandmother’s family had been slave owners. As the dream played out, I struggled to put this history into place. I tried to explain to people who, after learning this secret, asked how I could possibly claim to be Edwina’s friend and advocate when I came from such a prejudiced past.

I awoke shaking off the absurdity of the nightmare. But then, a reality that I often push to the side slid in to take its place.

My grandmother, and her brothers and sisters, were racist in the extreme. All my life, I heard them utter slurs that even at a young age seemed shameful to me. My mom used to say that that’s the way my grandmother and her siblings were raised. Fortunately, my parents offered a very different example, always teaching me to treat people with respect.

When I was old enough to begin dating, my grandmother would tell me not to ever bother coming around with “any boyfriends who were N______.” All black people were the same in her book, and by same, I mean all of the worst assumptions that can be made about a person.

As we drove home from the beach and the girls slept in the car, I filled the silence with thoughts about the memories behind my nightmare. I wondered why I’d never thought about this side of my grandmother in all the time I’ve known Edwina, Lumon, Roderick, Lisa and others.

I guess I’ve been focused on the friends I’ve met and not on the color of their skin.


The Browns

Tomorrow, Michael Brown’s memorial service will be held at Church of the Reconciler. He died suddenly from a heart attack on July 4, while celebrating with family.

Michael is married to Lisa Brown, one of the breast cancer survivors I met soon after Edwina who was making a life for herself on the street at the same time she was dealing with her diagnosis. She told me that Michael saw past all of her weaknesses and loved her anyway.

When Lisa first discovered a lump in her breast, she was serving time at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama. The attendants in the infirmary shooed her away, figuring she was exaggerating the sudden growth and pain of the lump. It took several months for her to get a proper diagnosis–only after she had been transferred to the Lovelady Center for former female inmates and was among women trying to rebuild their lives.

Lisa’s journey through cancer has been filled with challenges. She’s experienced several recurrences, emotional turmoil, and escapes to her former life as a drug addict when the pain and fear became too much. Each time, Michael stayed behind and remained steady, waiting for Lisa to return. She always did.

Tomorrow and every day after will be difficult for Lisa, but I’m certain that she’ll discover her own strength along the way.

Speed bumps

Since I discovered that Edwina lied to me, we haven’t talked face to face. We’ve texted back and forth a bit, and Edwina tells me that she isn’t feeling well and she loves me. Today’s text announced that she’d rescued her sister from jail last night. I didn’t ask how she’d ended up there in the first place.

I miss our chats and outings, but I’m still feeling the sting of helping out Edwina with Christmas last year and learning that I was one of many elves filling Edwina’s apartment with more than she and her family could ever use. As Edwina’s pile grew higher, others in need of a hand went without.

Rachael Martin, former pastor at Church of the Reconciler and the person who first introduced me to Edwina, told me to think about what’s happened as a “bump in the road,” as a chance to slow down and assess where Edwina is headed at this point in her walk through homelessness and cancer as well as where our friendship stands.

Rachael’s had a lot of experience with folks like Edwina and Lisa, and she recognizes that the ability to walk away from a life on the streets and the insecurity and greed that this kind of life breeds is difficult. It’s not a linear journey. As much as I hate the term “tough love,” Edwina needs to realize that lying leads to distrust and bruised relationships. That said, I say a prayer every night that Edwina, Aubrey and the rest of her family have a peaceful Chirstmas.

It’s a dance that I’ve had some experience with. As a kid, I learned to give my brother a second chance, then a third, a fourth and so on. Each time he told me he was clean, that he was telling the truth, that he’d finally gotten his life together, I wanted to believe he had transformed himself. But there were, and continue to be, many bumps on the road. While the most simple response would be to turn around and head another way, one that takes me away from Edwina and my brother, I know that I’d always be looking in the rearview mirror to see what I’d left behind.

Bucket lists

Tomorrow is my 49th b’day. Time to reflect on where I’ve been and what lies ahead.

When cancer came knocking on my door at age 29, I wasn’t sure I’d be around twenty years later. So much has happened.

The love of my life, Bruce, stuck by me through cancer then (and again, when it reared its ugly head in my 40th year). When we got married, my hair had just returned in full from chemo–wavy and darker than before. Both features quickly faded–waves to straight locks and darker hair to a dull blondish-gray. Little else from the experience of cancer has faded, but with Bruce’s support, I’ve continued moving forward.

We have two beautiful daughters. Celia is 14 and a freshman in high school. Helena is a sixth grader, age 11. Both are funny, smart, and a major handful much of the time. I wouldn’t want to have missed a minute of being a mom–the diapers and nighttime feedings, first days of school, ice skating lessons, softball, tears and cuddles. It’s hard to believe now that a slightly different diagnosis at age 29, or a different treatment regimen, might have robbed me of the ability to have children.

I’ve traveled throughout the world, exploring the lives of people in India, Africa, and Nepal, and seeing some of the most beautiful landscapes in Switzerland, Italy, and Ireland.

I’ve had the chance to teach hundreds of students and help them to achieve their goals. They, in turn, have supported mine, showing up to assist with Street Smarts and congratulating me when I reach a professional milestone.

I have met so many people that play a significant role in my life–friends, colleagues, fellow survivors, writers, editors. It’s hard to imagine where I’d be now if I’d never met Edwina, Lisa, or other homeless cancer survivors walking the streets of Birmingham.

And I’ve had the luxury to write it all down and to revisit these moments in my life over and over again. Each time, they look a bit different. Every time, they remind me how fortunate I am to have survived the past 20 of my 49 years.

The next item on my bucket list is to keep moving forward. Live. Be thankful. Give back.

Back to the streets

In just two days, we’ll be running the second Street Smarts event, this time at Jefferson County’s Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. In addition to spa services, lunch, and a breast cancer education session, participants will be given the opportunity to undergo initial screening through a clinical breast exam. Edwina and Lisa are on-board to share their experiences with stage IV breast cancer, both of them given the diagnosis while homeless.

I met up with Ellen and Sarah from Komen earlier today to prepare the fifth floor of Cooper Green for the event. Ironically, we have a good deal of space to run all aspects of the program only because the hospital has been forced to close the ob/gyn unit. In fact, it wasn’t more than a month ago when we got the word that oncology will remain open, at least for the time being, despite the severe funding problems the county is facing. The news spread fast in the homeless community, since Cooper Green is truly the only healthcare facility in Birmingham willing to treat the poorest of patients.

As I returned to Cooper Green on my own later this evening to set up a bulletin board for the event, I caught myself humming to myself and feeling pretty happy that Street Smarts is just about here. I’m proud of the program and the efforts of so many in the Birmingham community–volunteers from Komen, friends, former students, breast cancer survivors from all walks of life–to make the day special for women who don’t often have the luxury to tend to themselves or the confidence to trust their own bodies.

On a side note, the ASCO (American Society for Clinical Oncology) Post just published a piece on Street Smarts, along with some other exciting projects initiated by survivor-advocates:,-give-thanks,-and-give-back.aspx

Bad girls

Bright and early Saturday morning, I picked up Edwina and Lisa (Brown) to head to Huntsville. Our friend Rachael Martin, former pastor at Church of the Reconciler, had invited several of us from Birmingham to participate in a talk she was giving tentatively called “Bad Girls in the Body of Christ.” When I heard we would each be asked to wear a black t-shirt with “Bad Girl” scripted in red across the front, I knew I was in.

The talk took place at a Charismatic church–a bit of a stretch for a Catholic girl like me who’s used to subdued celebratory ritual–during a women’s conference. Rachael was the featured speaker, and her message was a simple, yet powerful reminder: It doesn’t really take all that much effort to go to church or to convince someone to go to church. Getting somebody to hit the streets and move outside their comfort zone, on the other hand, is a mighty big task.

The crew from B’ham represented “bad girls.”

Elaine, an associate professor of nursing at Samford, tends to the homeless and drug addicted, providing them with basic and emergency medical care.  I once saw Elaine run to the rescue of a mentally ill pregnant woman who tried to take her own life by slicing her wrists. Elaine talked her down and got her the help she needed.

Dawn, the “interior designer for the homeless community” as Rachael referred to her, is the one who transports the homeless and near-homeless to appointments and is first in line to help someone who finally has a place to call their own with furnishings to make it feel like a real home.

Ann, a hairdresser by trade and interpreter for the deaf during services at Church of the Reconciler, is a woman with a wide and generous spirit. She showed up, unannounced, at Street Smarts to cut and style women’s hair. She found the time to locate a bed for Edwina when she first moved into her apartment, and she cradled Mike Campbell, a homeless Vietnam vet with mental illness and COPD. as he passed on from this world last week.

Edwina and Lisa are “bad girls” of another sort. They defy what the world has told them they must be, by turning away from a life of drug addiction, crime, prostitution and just about anything else you can imagine happening on the streets. Now, they serve other women much like them while teaching the rest of us wanna-be bad girls how hard it is to change a life.

The women at the conference chuckled as Rachael described each of us crawling around in homeless camps down by the railroad tracks on the wrong side of Birmingham or sitting alongside a homeless woman who’s never seen the inside of a doctor’s office as she waits to hear her prognosis. We’re bad girls, Rachael said, because we go into those dark corners where “good girls” aren’t supposed to go, at least not the kinds of girls who come from reputable families and go to church.

Yet, we do go and we see things and get to know people so unlike us only to find how like us they really are. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Health care woes

Cooper Green, Jefferson County’s Hospital offering the only care for those in this part of the country lacking the income and resources to seek private care, is struggling to keep its head above water. The implications for folks like Edwina are huge.

The two departments being slated for closure are oncology (Clinic E, where I’ve spent a good many days with Edwina, Lisa, Charles, and Roderick) and ob/gyn. Since these are apparently the most expensive departments to run, the hospital is being forced by county commissioners to shut them down or go without any backing whatsoever.

There’s a lot of blame going back and forth in the local media, some saying that the hospital is mismanaged and others saying the hospital was doing ok until government folks got too far into administrators’ business. Regardless of where to point the finger, though, the outcome is the same. People needing cancer care, or prenatal care, are going to be out of luck unless they can find a way to get help elsewhere. And while Cooper Green is working hard to place its current oncology patients with facilities throughout the city, chances are that many patients who would have gone to Cooper Green now won’t seek any sort of care. Folks simply slip through the cracks.

I’ve been working with one of the key people at Cooper Green to hold the next Street Smarts event there. The program would be the same as when we held it at Church of the Reconciler, but we were hoping to offer participants this time around an opportunity to register as a patient at the facility and an optional breast exam by a doctor or nurse. The fate of those homeless women we might have reached is now uncertain.

I’ll be publishing an op-ed in The Birmingham News a week from today comparing the situation at Cooper Green with the tiered health care system in Nepal. Whether we want to admit it or not, care in America also operates according to tiers–the more a patient has money and insurance-wise, the better the care.