What Cancer Can’t Take From Us

Reading the words aloud at the pulpit did little to register them in my mind. It was a passage from Saint Paul to the Corinthians, but it was difficult to concentrate. I was elsewhere, occupied with the task of convincing myself that this was a mistake.

I wasn’t there, there in my dad’s childhood church, back home in Philadelphia on a weekday afternoon to remember a woman I loved. She was going to walk through that door. She’d tell us to take down the memory boards and save the old stories. There was simply a misunderstanding.

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We sat around the dining room table, passing around old photos and forgotten knick knacks. Was laughter allowed in this situation? Would she have done the same in our position?

You’ll do some peculiar things in your life, but sifting through the belongings left behind by a family member is among the more surreal experiences. There, in boxes and on bookshelves and in second-floor closets, were the trinkets and tokens a person accumulates over the years. They told the story of a woman I wish I had known beyond holiday visits, summer trips to the Jersey Shore, and phone calls home.

Someone dug out an old envelope and held it up for inspection. KYW-TV, the local CBS affiliate, had written to my aunt in response to a letter in which she evidently voiced her opinion of the station’s revamped news format. The date and contents of the note brought a smile to each face in the room.

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Denise Stubel was fiercely independent and never shy to share her two cents. She’d tell you when she thought you were wrong and wouldn’t back down. In my eyes, she defined what it meant to keep people honest. That she took the time, at the age of 21, to critique the creative direction of a local news broadcast was vintage Aunt Neecy. “Of course, we’d feel better if you liked it.” I could picture the director reading her comments, questioning why this woman felt qualified to weigh in on the set design or music.

The letter was the perfect reprieve from the mourning, an oasis we relished before returning to the reality that she was gone.

On the last day of Neecy’s life, I entered her hospital room knowing she had taken a turn for the worse. The drive there had afforded me to time to consider what to say; I was committed to having something more than small talk.

My self-discipline fell away when I saw her. She was losing a battle against a menace she had learned of only three months earlier. How could I articulate my gratitude for a lifetime of love and advice in the space of few minutes? If she didn’t know already, it was far too late to explain it now.

Instead, I shared the latest developments from the Phillies offseason (she was one of the biggest Chase Utley fans). I recounted the ever-growing list of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates (it was still the pre-Trump era — I can assure you that Neecy would’ve had something to say about the presumptive nominee). But we mostly sat in silence as I held her hand. When it was time to go, I kissed her goodbye and said we’d talk soon. I wasn’t brave enough to let go.

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I wish you had met Denise Stubel. I wish you could have heard her infectious laugh, felt the warmth of her enveloping hugs, and tasted her amazing cooking. Although she was my aunt and godmother, neither title did her justice.

So congratulations, cancer. You won the fight for Neecy’s body. You took her from her family and friends long before her time. For that, you deserve eternal hatred and scorn.

Know, however, that you lost the fight for Neecy’s spirit. You lost because we will remember. We will remember her loyalty and self-reliance and wisdom. We will remember her love and kindness. In this fight, cancer, you’re outnumbered and outgunned. Neecy lives on.

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