If you have to ‘google’ one name today, make sure it is Stephanie Williams; if you have to read one book in the new year, make sure it is ‘Enter Sandman’ by Stephanie Williams, published only weeks before her death from terminal cancer at the age of thirty two.
I spent Christmas eve leafing through old issues of Glamour magazine and came across Stephanie’s article ‘Saying Goodbye to My Life’ in the October 2004 issue, published only days after Stephanie’s death. Written from the heart, yet without sentimentalising her illness and the aftermath, the article charts Stephanie’s journey through life from the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer, only a few weeks after her thirtieth birthday. After ten years of working hard in New York City, she had recently landed a six-figure salary as a senior writer for SmartMoney magazine and had met a wonderful man on a blind date and found herself in a serious relationship within just four months. It was a week after her return from a trip to Egypt where she had spent her birthday climbing Mount Sinai overnight with her mum and a friend to watch the daybreak over the horizon, Stephanie found a lump in her breast. She spent the next two years undergoing, chemo-therapy, being tied to oxygen masks and swallowing a range of pills. Her cancer was incurable. She begins her honest reflections on living with cancer with the question, “What does it feel like to know that you don’t have long to live?”
In her quest to provide the truthful answer, Stephanie details a magical holiday to Milan she shared with her boyfriend, Daniel at the end of her first year of treatment. Until then, Stephanie had considered cancer to be a blip she would over come. It was on the third day of this magical holiday as a ‘normal’ couple, Stephanie mustered the courage to make that one important phone call home to find out whether her year long battle with cancer was in fact a blip. The results of a recent blood test, however, were shattering – the ‘tumour markers’, the by-products of cancer detectable through blood tests, were rising, suggesting the presence of cancer in her body.
Stephanie describes the rest of her trip as a daze, walking around Milan, sitting at the Sforza Castle with Daniel’s arms around her and calling her mum and her younger sister Laurie and hearing despair in their voices. Then Daniel and she decided to make the most of their holiday, aware that it may be their last. On the last day of their holiday, lying in bed with Daniel in her arms and staring across Lake Como, Stephanie told Daniel, ‘If I could fall asleep right now, I could die with no regrets.’
Her time on earth wasn’t up though, not for another two years. On her return to America, she started a more vigorous round of treatment which left her exhausted, nauseous and in pain, as well as menopausal. As she got too weak in body and in spirit to go out and spend time with friends, Stephanie took up writing her novel. Enter Sandman kept her fears about the imminent threat of death at bay as she focused on the plot and the two characters she absolutely adored. As her plot and her characters developed though, her relationship with Daniel was at a standstill, both of them acutely aware of the possibility of not growing old together. He would still visit as often as before, but they stopped calling each other ‘girlfriend’ and ‘boyfriend’, as they had ‘quietly realised that the dream of a life together wouldn’t happen’.
Once Stephanie accepted that she was no longer moving to Providence with Daniel who was due to take a post there, she set out to make herself happier in New York City, first finding herself a garden apartment in a neighbourhood she loved, furnishing it in warm, cosy colours of orange and khaki, and adopting Gus, a mixed-breed dog with a broken leg whom she nursed back to health. It was only in her illness she realised that most people wait a lifetime to start their lives.
It was not just her physical environment though, as she notes, that had changed. As she slowed down her pace of life, she had noticed a change in her outlook on life as well: ‘For once, I have time to get to know people rather than zooming past them.’ She now had the time to sleep late if she wanted to, to watch TV all day long without feeling guilty, to see her friends in Providence, Rochester and Baltimore. ‘For what it’ worth, and it’s worth a lot,’ writes Stephanie, ‘I’ve had two great years of really living.’
The beauty of bearing her heart open in her writing is that it is clear to see Stephanie does not gloss over the losses she has suffered as a result of cancer, in a bid to focus on the positive. Perhaps the very strength of her writing comes from her dignified acceptance of loss – of a relationship which would have ended in marriage and a brood of kids, of the intense bond she has shared with her mother and her sister. As any honest writer and any honest woman would, Stephanie is also aware of the loss others will have to endure, the pain she will cause them in her departure.
As you read through the final few paragraphs, you can’t help but feel her pain and admire her strength in celebrating the last two years of her life and the bonds she had shared. As you reach the end and find out she passed away shortly before the magazine went to print, you can’t help but contemplate the transience of life, of love, of pain – of any human experience in this fleeting world. This is the story of a woman who thought she had it all at the age of thirty and that life was full of promises. This is the story of a woman who went through a painful ordeal and fell victim to a fatal disease. This is the story of a woman who wanted to be remembered, not just by Gus who used to run to her side to lick her tears away whenever she cried, or by Daniel who she accepts will one day be dancing with someone else at their wedding, or by her family – her mum who had spent the last three years caring for her, her dad who considered her his inspiration and her sister who would lament that they’d ‘never be little old ladies together’, but ‘by as many people as possible’.
Next time you look in the mirror and complain about the excess baggage on your thighs or the extra four inches on your waist; next time your significant other fails to call you first thing in the morning or the last thing at night, or the next time you check your bank balance only to find out you are flat broke to last till the next pay day, remember Stephanie. Say a little prayer for her, and say a little prayer that all your worries amount to one single phone call, or a few inches or a few hundred pounds.
p.s. This post is dedicated to Positive Girl who puts life into perspective through her positive posts.