Just less than a year ago a dear young woman who we all have come to know, respect and love... gave the call out that her flame was flickering and that her time fighting was coming to an end. She asked us to never forget her. In the last 11 months words have been written, anger spewed at how we hate cancer, pearls have been strung and sent to her family, a funeral has been had, tears have fallen and a hole has appeared. Nationwide our song this 3 Day Season rang out that we would never forget Bridget. That this year would be for her. Staff donned shirts in Boston which we all heaved a collective and loving sigh over. On the sleeve cuff, a simple "B" with a pink ribbon. Over the course of the season, walkers and crew alike wore their pearl necklaces or bracelets (Bridget loved pearls and we all made sure she saw us wearing them proudly) and felt connected with her as they took to the streets walking or crewing.
The necklace which I was lovingly grasping just prior to stepping up on stage was given to me by Malinda, my friend who started the Pearl to Bridget project just shortly after Bridget wrote her last blog at Christmas last winter. Side by side, Malinda and I put together as much as we could for the project and in the end the gorgeous collection of pearls were breathtakingly beautiful, just like our dear sweet Bridget. The necklace I was given was a thank you for me helping in the project.
Up until Friday I had not worn it yet. I had not had a reason to put it on (and seeing that I have a toddler running around my house I couldn't see wearing something that special only for something to happen to it). I decided prior to going to San Diego that the walk would be the perfect place to wear the pearls. It started with the pearl project and was so fitting to wear them all 3 days along my emotional journey this year. They were on stage with me, they heard my speech, saw the flag I carried, felt my tears fall upon them, my sweat embraced each pearl like a loving embrace as I took on each new day. (don't worry, I washed them at the end of each day so to as protect their beauty)
Now, any walker or crew who has participated in San Diego is aware of the following: Torrey Pines Hill on Day 1 & Juan Street in Old Town on Day 3. Some curse the hills and decide to sweep or they walk them and you never hear the end of their bitching about them. Well... Torrey Pines can bite me. But... in 2011 only 4 months after my mom died, I conquered Juan Street and vowed that this massive, straight up, oh my hell type of hill would forever be the memorial hill to my mother. That year I took out the small bag of my moms ashes and shared with her a moment that was so raw and full of emotion that I told myself, if nothing else... I will always conquer Juan Street for my mom... And I did.
This year I looked forward to it...I almost craved Juan Street. After the rough year I had, I absolutely needed some form of accomplishment which would re-connect me with my mom again. So, with two of my teammates by my side... and chips and salsa now in my gut... I looked up at the hill in-front of me, leading (like what it seemed) straight up into the heavens themselves. With my moms small breast cancer ribbon urn in my camelbak... I shuffled one foot in-front of the other... until I reached the main summit of the hill. Before me was a vista overlooking seaworld and the outlining communities off in the distance we had just walked all morning. I had my friend take Mom out of my pack for me as I caught my breath.
I held mom out and showed her the most beautiful scene as swarms of red faced huffing and puffing walkers made their way past us. I openly cried. I shook all the way down to my soul. I had made it. I had conquered the hill again with and for my mom. It had been 2 years since I was able to do that last and I felt a sudden flush of emotions hit me like a truck. In the same breath though, there was a much needed release which lifted off my shoulders and chest and I was able to feel lighter. On we go around the bend up the second part of Juan Street which wasnt as bad, but still... ANY hill after that first one and you either want a ski lift to carry your ass or a cold bottle of beer to be there at the top as reward.
What I found at the crest of the second part of the hill was far more rewarding than I would have ever imagined. Sitting on the concrete steps of her beautiful Craftsman Style home was a raven haired woman clutching her hands over her mouth and sobbing... her name was Ingrid. On her steps closest to the street was a cardboard sign that read, "I survived & Keep fighting because you walked! Ingrid, Mother of 3... Thank You". Strewn all over the sign were pink rubber bracelets that other walkers had left in honor of her and in support of her. Pink Bead necklaces hung from her posts, flowers dropped onto the sign. All were silent ways that as we passed by... we were supporting her. I stopped dead in my tracks. Something grabbed a hold of me and pushed me off course to go sit with her and learn of her story.
I sat with Ingrid and saw her red swollen eyes. She had been there a while. Witnessing thousands of people walk by her front doorstep. She was overcome with emotions. I came up to her and immediately hugged her without saying a word. The hug I received back, from this complete stranger was worth its weight in gold. I honestly felt her heart as she shook in my embrace. When we were done our hug, I asked my friend Shannon who had just conquered Juan Street with me, to come help me with something.
I sat back down on the step with Ingrid. Clutching my pearl necklace in both my hands.
I listened to Ingrid tell me her story... diagnosed at 37. And now 40 years old, mother of 3. Surviving because the clinical trials she was in saved her life. Those clinical trials which were through the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Those same exact trials that helped give Bridget a few extra years to be able to get married, buy a house and live some of her days with her husband. She cried. I listened.
I then told her of Bridget's story. How young she was when diagnosed and how she passed in April. How my team (and so many others) were walking this season in her memory. Ingrid shook visibly as I spoke. And in a moment of love and grace I extended my hands and put my very precious pearl necklace into her hands. I said, "These belong with you. You need them more than I do. You wear them fondly and know that there are thousands of us standing beside you every step of the way supporting you. You wear them when you have rough day or when you need to smile or god forbid if your cancer should return. Just know that Bridget will be with you smiling down upon you and that we all... every single one of us will remember you sitting here. We fight for you, we walk for you and even though you don't know us... we will always care and be here for you".
She clutched the necklace and we embraced though our tears. I stood up and shook her teenage sons hand as he thanked me and I made my way back to the sidewalk to join my two team mates who just realized what had transpired. The pearl necklaces journey started with the pearl project when Bridget asked us to never forget her and after 50 miles walking with me and up Juan Street the journey now moves along with Ingrid and her days and hopefully years ahead.
Now if my cluster of emotions leading up to that point were not enough to be mind blowing... We then left Ingrid's house and start our sweet decline down the street. Less than one block away we are greeted by some cute kids passing out candy to the walkers as they pass. Now, after the hill I took and the toll which was taken on my body and soul... I reach out to take a piece of sweetness from the child in-front of me. When I looked at the piece I grabbed, I about fainted. I hadn't seen one in 3 years and hadn't eaten one in at least 6 years. It was a Heath bar.... and that was my mom's all time most beloved candy bar. I instantly got goosebumps. It was a sign from my mom saying... "I was with you up the hill, thank you for showing me the pretty view... but here is a reward for the kindness and love that you just showed that complete stranger who needed your hug and your heart more than you realize. I am with you always and I am proud".
Those pearls have such a story already... and now I know that Ingrid will have her own story to tell of how one woman sat with her for a moment and shared a story and a hug. How life can change in the blink of an eye. How, like Bridget and her message, one person can make a difference in the lives of others. I'd like to think that the moment she and I shared was pushed forward by my mom and by Bridget. That they were the "force" that made me veer off course and sit with Ingrid. The message was received and I felt honored to have been the vessel by which they used to give this woman hope and to let her know that there is a huge community rallying behind her every step of the way.
I pray those pearls see many happy moments... Christmas Eve's and Graduations & Weddings of her children. I hope they pass along happy thoughts and protect this beautiful woman as her journey continues.
This.... is why I walk.