She died over a year and a half ago.
Her cancer had returned. This time, it attacked not her breast but her liver and lungs. (That's never a good thing, as you well know.)
She was in my ward. I didn't know her that well, and yet I feel as though I really did. She had been our Relief Society President for only a few short months when the devastating news arrived. How could it be? No, please, no.
We had all fallen in love with her. She was unassuming, genuine, loving, faithful, approachable. She invited every sister who would come over to her house for some gathering. For the mothers of young children, it was a breakfast. She wanted to know about our lives, our thoughts, our suggestions. She even implemented one of my suggestions in a Relief Society class.
She was a mother of nine, eight of whom were living. She was an exemplary wife and mom, focusing her energies and time on building Zion within her home. (If you didn't know how humble and wonderful she was, you would be intimated by her. But you couldn't be intimidated. You just couldn't because of who she was.)
When her cancer came back, we as a ward mourned. We prayed. We fasted. We reached out in love as much as we could. Her family reached back, and shared intimate details of their struggle with us. We received regular emails updating us on their journey. They decided that they would open up their usually-private life so we could exercise our faith better, and so we could travel with them. It was one of the most unifying things I have ever experienced in a ward.
And it was one of the most tender experiences of my life. I felt a love and concern and connection with her and her family that has remained to this day, even as their life has moved on. And the experience reached a deep, deep part of my soul.
Part of the reason I connected so much is because so many of the struggles she had were struggles I was having, just in a different context, and perhaps to different degrees. I understood struggles with fear, concerns about the future and life and family and all of those things that surface when your health is in question. I was pretty sure that I didn't have cancer, but there were still so many unknowns, so many concerns that were the same. I just empathized with her--and she did with me.
I will never forget the day that I left an Enrichment class and went into one of the alcoves that leads to the stage -- to cry. I couldn't handle the normalcy with which the presenter was talking about getting up just a little bit earlier to exercise. That may sound silly, but she could never understand what a little bit more sleep could do for someone like me. She couldn't know how much I missed my normal life when I was a runner and could sacrifice sleep. She didn't know how hard it was when life just isn't normal. It was a straw for my camel that night, and I lost it. (Part of why I was so close to tears anyway was because I had had an abnormal brain MRI, and I was beyond worried.)
So who was the one who came to comfort me and to listen? You guessed it. Here she was, facing the possibility that her cancer would not go away this time around, and she was listening to me sob and vent my concerns and doubts and fears. Of course, it's because she understood. As I apologized for complaining about my life, given what her life entailed, I realized that the severity of her trials didn't change what my trials were to me. (We can't compare suffering.) She never made me feel that she "won" because her health problems were worse. She just cared.
As things continued to get worse in her life, we as a ward continued to exercise our faith together. Between pregnancy, nursing and health issues, I have only fasted once or twice in the past eight years or so, and one of those times was for her. We had very specific purposes to our fasting and prayers, and I felt strongly that we were exercising faith in a way that was pleasing to heaven. I had the sense that if she passed away, it would have to be God's will, because we were truly doing all we could do.
During this time, she would openly share her doubts and concerns and questions in Relief Society. These were the times I felt that much closer to her. I know that no one really knew what to say, but oh, how I could understand the questions she asked, because I had many of the same ones. What do you do with blessings that don't seem fulfilled? How do you exercise your faith? I think in the end she really understood the answers. Faith is not about getting what we want. It's about submitting with faith and trust to whatever God's will was. Ultimately, we have faith in Him and in nothing else.
God's will was made clear. She deteriorated rapidly in the end. She slipped peacefully into eternity on the day that I had anticipated finally going to her home to say my last and personal goodbye. (I hadn't done it sooner for fear of intruding on very necessary family time.)
She actually chose to wait a couple of hours before moving on, until her oldest daughter arrived from out of town. The family then sang a couple of hymns, then prayed, then let her go.
I have no doubt that she passed her test. And in doing so, she gave those around her more strength and desire to do the same. This journey was one filled with light, peace, understanding and hope. As she and her family shared the journey with us, they strengthened our testimonies about the truthfulness of the gospel and the plan of salvation. It all reached me so deeply that I will never be the same.
I miss her. I love her. And I will be forever grateful for the influence she had on my life.
And, so, sometimes I still cry.