Sunday, August 17, 2014

Louise Is Here

Bonnie’s cancer returned with a vengeance exactly one decade after it nearly claimed her life in 1995. As the months wore on, we both suspected that taming it a second time was unlikely, and so Bonnie began the legal process of setting up a trust for her two kids, her living will, and her estate executor paperwork, all of which I would manage upon her death. We candidly discussed her impending fate, laughed about all the crazy good times we’d had together, and spoke of her two kids, then 17 and 20.

She felt good about the stability her son, Chris, seemed to have created in the past year: he was dating a loving and grounded young woman, held a steady job at Boeing, and had removed his lip piercing and added long-sleeved shirts to his professional wardrobe to cover a plethora of tattoos. It was Christine on whom most of Bonnie’s trepidation centered. School wasn’t her thing, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life professionally, and Bonnie worried that her death would be much more difficult for her daughter to weather.

At the end of a visit with Bonnie in July of that year, I made her promise to hang in there until after I returned from a long-scheduled two-month family sabbatical in France. Her mood was lighthearted as she said, “Don’t worry; I’m not going anywhere yet.” Weeks later, at the Denver airport, I made one last phone call to her before boarding our flight to Paris. “Go!” she admonished. “I’ll be here when you get back. Promise.”

A month later I was lying on a massage table in Provence while the therapist—whom I’d been told was also somewhat psychic—worked on my body, which still suffered the residual effects of a near-fatal illness five years prior. She spoke very little English and my French was limited to the ability to order wine, ask where the restroom was, and say please and thank you. Needless to say, conversation was minimal.

Lulled into a state of complete relaxation, ­­­Colette broke the silence of my massage by saying, “Louise is here.”


“Louise. She is here.”

“Pardon? Je ne comprends pas." 

“Louise. She is here, how you say, ‘her spirit’—it is here. She bring to you love. You must bring to her love aussi.”

“But I don’t know anyone named Louise,” I said, wondering why my relaxing massage was being interrupted by what felt like a woo-woo snipe hunt.

“I do not know why, but the spirits, they use the number two name.”

“The what? The number two…the middle name?”

“Oui oui. Yes, the middle name. They use it to speak with me.”

“Huh,” I said. “I don’t know anyone whose middle name is Louise.”

But the massage therapist was adamant. “Louise is here. She bring to you love. So much love. You must give her love.”

So what’s a girl to do? I sent this seemingly imaginary Louise love and enjoyed the rest of my massage, albeit with a little less relaxation.

I returned to our rental home in Mazan, went about my day and waited until it was morning in California so I could make my weekly call to Bonnie. It was only 7 am on the Pacific Coast, but Bonnie had always been an early riser, so I wasn’t concerned about waking her. Our mutual friend, Kelli, answered the phone, her voice weary.

“Bonnie passed away this morning, Lauren,” she said. “Her mom checked on her about an hour ago and she was already gone.” We spoke for a few more minutes before saying our good-byes.

An hour later, a thought popped into my mind: Bonita L. Young. How many times had I seen her formal name on the reams of legal documents I’d signed months earlier? Always Bonita L. Young. Never Bonnie. And never more than “L” for the middle name. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember if Bonnie had ever actually told me what her middle name was. I immediately dialed her number again, and this time, her mother, Iva, answered. I offered my condolences before asking, “What was Bonnie’s middle name?”

“Louise,” Iva said. “Why?”

One of Bonnie's favorite words was "believe." You could find it lurking throughout her home, spelled out with large metal letters on the mantel or woven into a throw pillow on her favorite reading chair. For Bonnie's memorial service, I decided to add it to an enlarged photo of her, which I knew was one of her personal favorites. Believe! it shouted in both word and image. 

If ever there was a situation that prompted me to believe, it was that moment lying on a French massage therapist's table as she told me Louise is here. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Unlikely Friends

Fourteen years after a near-fatal illness, I find myself dealing with the long-term effects of my medical triumph: namely, really crappy joints. This morning, however, it’s not just my joints that ache. My heart aches too because, prohibited from air travel due to another recent surgery, I am unable to attend the memorial services for a man I respect deeply.

John Warner and I were unlikely friends. He, a soft-spoken mechanic and part-time farmer from rural Iowa who married at 24 and never moved from his home state. Me, a loud former corporate exec from New Jersey, who had no less than 22 different addresses in 3 different time zones before marrying at 35. To say we had disparate life experiences is an understatement. But we had common ground in one area, which was also the greatest challenge we both ever faced: the sudden onset of severe preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome.

For me, it meant my body shutting down following the birth of my first (and only) child: organ failure, blood transfusions, unresponsive. For John, it meant watching as his daughter Shelly’s body shut down following the birth of her first (and only) child: organ failure, blood transfusions, unresponsive. For me, it meant 6 weeks in the ICU. For John, it meant only one week in the ICU because on the seventh day after Shelly delivered her baby girl, she slipped away. In gaining his first grandchild, my friend John had lost his first child.

That experience alone would send most of us into a permanent state of despair, angry at life’s cruelty and unable to ever discuss pregnancy again given its potential for horrific outcomes. But this is where John proved himself to be more than “most of us.” He took all that grief and heartache and channeled it into helping others avoid the fate his daughter encountered.

He hosted his first local fundraiser for the Preeclampsia Foundation the same year Shelly passed away and then presented a check at the foundation’s inaugural gala benefit months later in Minneapolis. That was the night our paths crossed for the first—but not the last—time. That was where we learned one another’s stories and discovered how much in common a quiet Iowa farmer and a loud professional speaker could have by virtue of one insidious and elusive disease.

John and I swapped contact information and it wasn’t long before he was recruiting me to give talks in his home state at educational preeclampsia events he’d organized. There was something about his demeanor—quiet yet determined—that made “yes” seem like the only possible response to his requests. By way of tragedy, this man, whose paid work hadn’t involved interfacing much with others, transformed into a volunteer networker, hell-bent on raising the level of awareness and understanding of the pregnancy-related condition that robbed him of his daughter when she was 25-years-young.

He continued to chair an annual charity walk to support the cause. He joined the board of the Preeclampsia Foundation, hosting their most recent annual gala this past October. And in conjunction with the University of Iowa Hospitals, he and his wife, Brenda, recently launched the Shelly Bridgewater Dreams Foundation, with the hope of continuing their work to save the lives of new moms and their babies.

John allowed nothing to keep him from moving forward, not even lost luggage. In 2008, his suitcase failed to arrive in Washington D.C., so he borrowed clothes from my 6’5” husband and showed up at the gala that evening with shirtsleeves that hung three inches below his finger tips.

Despite the havoc and sorrow attached to our shared cause, John and I managed to share many laughs over the years. He was the epitome of transforming heartbreak into hope. But in the end, it was his heart that gave out. As someone who seeks meaning and interpretation in all of life’s significant turns, I can’t help but wonder if John’s heart didn’t take its biggest hit that day in 2005 when Shelly died. And all the fundraisers and awareness events in the world couldn’t heal his broken heart. But they could—and will continue to—help countless mothers, sisters, wives, and newborns.

Thank you, John. You spent your time here well. Now go celebrate your achievements with Shelly. 

You will be missed, sir.

John with Shelly's Daughter, Hailey, at a Preeclampsia Fundraiser

The Shelly Bridgewater Dreams Foundation was one of John’s proudest accomplishments. If you’d like to support John’s legacy, please donate to the foundation here: