April 24, 2012 — the day after my mother’s funeral. I’m sitting at the kitchen table sorting through a parti-colored assortment of old Christmas cards. Each year, my mother would tape the cards to a string of red pepper Christmas lights that hung from the kitchen’s support beam.

It felt like my hands were sieving through the cards like a strainer. Was I looking for something?

A LEGACY OF CARE: Douglas' mother during her service as a nurse in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Photo: Courtesy of Douglas Feil

A story’s opening page

One card stood out. I recognized my mother’s precise handwriting, only vaguely stilted by cancer.

“Dear Marnie,

Greetings and happy holidays. We’ve had our first snow and really welcome any moisture we can get. Such a dry, hot summer. We’ve had so many broken records. So many 100-degree days with no rain.

We celebrated my mother’s 90th birthday in September”

The greeting ends. No period, comma or punctuation. Unsigned, the card was never sent.

Marnie, I remembered, was a close friend of my mother’s. Both were nurses during the Vietnam War, arriving shortly before the Tet Offensive in 1968. After the war, they married, had children and settled into life, exchanging phone calls, letters and holiday cards religiously.

As I read the card a third time, my father passed through the kitchen in that stunned blankness that only a quiet death can form.

I handed him the card.

“What happened?” I asked. “Why didn’t Mom finish this card to Marnie?”

“The bond that carried my mother and her friend through life and death now carries on through us.”

My father replied in his West Texas twang, “I remember that morning; it was warm for December. It was the last day your mother felt well. She sat down at the table to work on Christmas cards and realized she had not heard from Marnie in well over a year. I think it frightened her. She wanted to get to the bottom of it before she finished the card, but she tired so quickly. We never did get a hold of Marnie. Maybe you could look her up and tell her about your mother’s passing. I’m sure she would want to know.”

Searching for connection

I quickly found Marnie’s first and last name in my mother’s address book, then a quick Google search. Like a spotlight on that shadowy part of our suspicions we seldom acknowledge, the thing that stopped my mother in her tracks on that December morning appeared: The page opened and confirmed what intuition had already conceded – Marnie’s obituary, less than a year earlier. Even the same disease, cancer.

I don’t know if my mother and Marnie ever discussed their diagnosis. I’m almost certain they never talked about how little time they had or the possibility of sharing the bond of war, as well as death.

They probably kept it limited to the weather or birthdays. But something tells me they knew, and that they both took courage knowing they were not alone.

Strength in community

As I write this, I’m preparing to travel to Houston for a metastatic breast cancer retreat. Facilitated by a nurse navigator, eight patients and their caregivers will spend the weekend discussing their hopes and fears and what to do about a fatal disease with no cure that has spread to other parts of their body.

They will gain knowledge and a renewed hope for life, but more than anything, they will know that they are not alone. No one should face breast cancer alone, and no one should feel like they journeyed through this disease with things left unsaid.

I later found Marnie’s daughter on Facebook, reached out and became friends with her. The bond that carried my mother and her friend through life and death now carries on through us. Instead of cards, we share likes, comments and solace, knowing that even in the act of remembering our mothers, we are not alone.