August 3, 2009
Thank you Lisa for that kind introduction.
Thank you Nancy Cardwell, Ellen Levy-Gray, Stanley Levinson and members of the Play Pink on the Links Volunteer Planning Committee for all of the work you do to fight breast cancer. And thank you to everybody who is here for taking this cause as your own.
When Nancy invited me to speak, I wasn’t sure why she reached out to me. She told me that this event typically honors brave and inspiring women who had beaten breast cancer. She said that this year they thought to honor someone who was deeply affected by the loss of a loved one from the disease.
Since being invited to speak tonight, I have been grappling with what Nancy said. I began to question what she meant when she suggested that I be honored as a survivor.
To me, at first, the word “survivor” didn’t quite fit my circumstance. It seemed like a misplaced honor. There are 250,000 women who get diagnosed with breast cancer every year. They are the survivors. Whether they are fortunate to live another 50 years or they lose their battle after only a few weeks, they are the ones who have to deal directly with the disease. They have to make all the decisions and deal with the changes in their lives and with their own mortality. They are the real heroes in this battle with cancer.
I don’t feel much like the survivor. Instead, though cancer took her life, it is really Francesca who survived. She survives through our three daughters and everyone else whose lives she touched.
Francesca’s magnificent art triggered the full range of emotions in those who experienced it. She was a beautiful woman with an incredible sense of style and grace. Everybody noticed Francesca.
But what we discovered when she got cancer at the age of 30 was an incredible courage, sense of humor and perspective on life. She had no patience for people cry about it around her.
Francesca was first diagnosed with cancer within a year of our first date, and her battle ended only a few weeks after our 20th wedding anniversary. Francesca survived in those whose lives she touched during her 52 years with us.
During Francesca’s last trip to the hospital, her doctor came into her room to speak with the whole family. While Francesca lay in bed, hidden by an oxygen mask and an array of machines, Dr. John Fetting looked at the girls and told them, “Your mom’s not going to be able to come home again.”
Well our daughters are just as strong-willed as their mother, and they grilled the doctor. They pressed him on different treatment options and asked why it was necessary for her to stay in the hospital. I told the girls that “this really isn’t fair.” Just as only a spouse can do, Francesca immediately cut me off and simply said “No.” She wasn’t having any of it.
We all turned to look at Francesca, and she repeated from behind her oxygen mask, “No. This is just part of life, and we have lived a really good life.”
In that moment Francesca imparted a great sense of values to our young daughters. She would not hear a word about fairness. She was blessed to live a good life, and she wanted to make sure that our family knew that. Francesca’s set of values survives in her daughters and in me and in anyone who hears her story.
Francesca’s love touched so many – particularly her sisters, nieces and nephews. One day as she lay in the hospice, Francesca’s nephew, Jason, came to visit with a brand new tattoo of a pink ribbon that covered his entire forearm. It turns out that the Hyatt where he worked was not too pleased with the addition, but Francesca was deeply moved by his affection and his sacrifice for her. She will survive in him and anyone that he meets or dates who glimpses at his tattoo. He might not be able to work at the Hyatt anymore, but Francesca will forever survive in him.
Francesca also survived in another nephew, Lewis, who collaborated with her on several of her video projects – Francesca’s art spanned from video to the canvass. Lewis had never gone to college, and it was always Francesca’s dream that he would realize his potential and discover his limitless talent. Whether it was for love or guilt, in the first line of her will, Francesca said that it was her hope and desire for Lewis to go to college. Three years later, and Lewis is entering the California Institute of the Arts this September. Francesca’s dream for Lewis survived long after she left us, and her passion for art and love for her family will always survive in him.
A few days after Francesca moved into the hospital for the last time, her father, Frank, came to visit. Frank, a 30-year naval veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor, had arrived holding a Medal for Bravery awarded to him for his service in World War II. He promptly pinned it upon Francesca's bed sheet and declared that he was hereby awarding this Medal of Bravery to her – from one survivor to another.
So, as I reflect more on what Nancy said, I believe that it’s not that we are the survivors; it is that Francesca survives in us. She survives in Jason’s tattoo and in Lewis’s finally heading off to college. She survives in her daughters’ sense of values, their sense of style and in her lasting bravery during her battle with cancer. She survives in her art and in the photographs she inspired in other breast cancer patients.
I had all of the opportunities in life – my parents could afford to send me to one of the best colleges, and I achieved the highest levels of finance and government. All of that pales in comparison to being married to Francesca. Our life together and the children that we raised are our two greatest accomplishments.
I knew that Francesca had cancer less than a year after we started dating. I never knew if it would take her, but I always knew that it was there. The journey of life and all of the challenges it brings are hard and sometimes downright awful, but it is also so rich and beautiful.
So Nancy, if you still want to refer to me as a survivor, it can only be because Francesca survives in me, in our daughters and in every lesson that she imparted on us.
Thank you once again for honoring Francesca and my family tonight. And thank you for all of the work you are doing to help the fight against breast cancer.
Last Updated: December 1, 2010