Danielle Ripley-Burgess

I live to blog about it.

16 Candles

If I could travel back in time and tell the 17-year-old standing in the back of the library one thing, the one who was just told she had colon cancer, it would be this:

Look up. Breathe. Exhale. Seek. Repeat.

If I could give her one heads up, I’d tell her to expect life to ebb and flow, not just in normal life but in cancer life too. I’d let her in on the secret – there will be good days and bad days, and at first, more bad than good. I’d tell her to give herself permission to curse.

If I could recommend a pre-surgery meal, I’d tell her to go for fried chicken, or maybe a big cheeseburger with fries. And a milkshake. I’d encourage her to eat popcorn. And peanuts. And quinoa – not because it’s healthy but because she probably won’t enjoy it again until she sees the pearly gates. Or at least have little-to-no complications.

If I could tell her who to spend her time with, I’d tell her to look around at those who come close. I’d tell her not everyone can handle a big diagnosis (especially teenagers) and that’s OK. I’d tell her friendships have phases, sort of like the ocean’s tide. Sometimes it’s high and other times it’s low, but the tide will always be there if it’s a good friend. I’d tell her support will be key, and to humble herself enough to receive it even when she doesn’t want to.

If I could advise her on money, I’d tell her not to spend even one dollar on singly-ply, cheap toilet paper. Even in college. I’d tell her that yes, it will suck to spend money on insurance, procedures, medicines and bills. But it beats the alternative. I’d tell her to appreciate her good insurance plan and not take it for granted. I’d tell her to advocate for others who don’t have it as good as she does… because their fate may not turn out the same way. I’d tell her this monumental moment in life just changed how she saw the world, politics and healthcare. And to be graceful to others who’ve not had the same moment.

If I could ask her to stop something, it would be the cliche statements, although she’d have no idea what I meant. I’d tell her of course – cancer makes her look at life differently. Of course – God’s in control. Of course – everything happens for a reason. But I’d ask her to quiet down not for my sake but for hers. She has no idea that those statements can actually serve as walls that need torn down so real healing can begin. If she insists, I’ll be patient. It takes time to reach that understanding.

If I could take her anywhere, it would be to Times Square. And then LA. And then Multnomah Falls and Portland. We’d head out to New Orleans and Charleston. Washington, D.C. and Denver. I’d have her stand on the Daytona Speedway with me and then walk onto the set of a reality TV show. I’d explain that if she hangs in there, these are places she’ll go one day. I’ll let her know that while it seems impossible, there’s a grand plan ahead for her. I’ll explain that she will be used to help others having a similar day. I’ll hope that encourages her.

If I could buy her anything, it would be a boxing bag like the one hanging in my garage now. And some gloves. I’d show her how to work out once her surgery scars heal and tell her it’s the best way I’ve found to plug into the mental, emotional and spiritual sides of cancer. I’d tell her to let loose and not hold back. And to get angry – she needs to go there if she wants to get better.

If I could encourage her, I’d tell her it’s OK to love and be vulnerable. And to make plans. I’d tell her that it’s totally normal to be scared when you’re keenly aware that nothing lasts forever and life can change in a second. But even with the losses and sad unexpecteds of life, the risk of loving deeply is worth it.

If I could surprise her with one thing, it would be a big layered cake with 16 candles on it. Not because she’s just learning to drive but because after 16 years of cancer, I’d let her know that if she hangs in there, she will just be learning to live.

Because She Was Rose

I stood off to the side, a common place for me, and watched her arms raise and hips gently sway. The sparkles on her low-cut, v-neck, blue sequence dress flashed in the lights. Her tall silver heels and spiky hair, not to mention her signature blue eye shadow, led me to believe she felt good. Watching her dance freely and work the room to offer her sincere love to everyone in it, I forgot about her pain.

I forgot she’d been in the hospital just hours earlier and that in a few minutes she’d excuse herself and take one of her many trips to the restroom to empty or adjust one of the multiple hidden bags strapped around her abdomen. I forgot that she’d fought stage IV colorectal cancer for over a decade and that she’d run out of treatment options.

I knew she was pushing it, but I knew she didn’t care.

Because she was Rose.

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I stood off to the side like a teenage wallflower and watched her. Part of me understood her drive – the fire inside of her that refused to let cancer steal special moments. Part of me didn’t understand. How could she physically feel so bad yet live so free? The bruises and bandages on her arms from recent needle pokes reminded me of her reality.

How could she go deep when she knew her time was short? How could she bypass the sticky quicksand of pity and rise above her illness on behalf of her fellow man? How could she smile so big when pain ran through her frail body?

I watched as she graciously took selfies and accepted hugs (despite her weakened immune system). She danced like nobody was watching on the dance floor. Or maybe she knew everyone was watching, and it fueled her even more. How she did it, I still don’t know.

I began to grieve.

I assumed this would be the last time I saw her. If I had to choose a moment, it was a good one. She was dancing on a crowded dance floor in a low-cut sparkly blue dress.

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Because she was Rose — it didn’t exactly work like that.

A few weeks later I saw her again. It was outdoors and at a crowded park, nonetheless, with an inflatable colon to her left. She rocked a stage alongside country music artists as she and Craig Campbell performed their song “Stronger Than That” together.

Her ability to travel just weeks after a prolonged hospital stay puzzled me. As the weeks and months went on, I watched her miracles unfold. She defied the odds and she kept going. Some of it undoubtedly was science – cancer research was one of her passions and her life had become dependent on it. Some of it I believe was her faith – a heart-to-heart conversation about our beliefs one day led me to know the quietly devout side of her. And some of it was simply just her, and the gift she had to overcome suffering and disease for just a little longer.

Because she was Rose.

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The last time I did see her, she rocked a stage once again. Of course – in a tight blue dress and tall heels. She was with Craig again. They performed their song. Eric stood beside her. Together they inspired a room full of people, which flowed out onto a nation of people, to have strength and be strong. To not let cancer win. To bond with others and fight together.

The cameraman commented that when Rose got on stage, he got the best shots of the night. Not only did the cameras love her, those taking the pictures also fell in love. Truth be told, we all fell in love. I doubt there’s a soul on earth who knew her and didn’t love her.

Because she was Rose.

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Her passing brings such mourning because of the love and joy she never withheld. I am among the many who received it. As we drag our feet to say tough goodbyes, I can’t help but see her fist pumped in the air, and hear her Jersey accent yelling at us, “keep going!” So I will, we all will, keep going because in these moments of hurt our healing begins.

We will push through no matter what – just like she did.

Because she was Rose.

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