You know you have arrived at the threshold of old age when your friends begin to die. Not from the dramatic implosions of youth – the post-party car crashes or overdoses or gunshot wounds — but from the steady creeping slaughter of disease.
Drusilla Campbell went first, after a brief but valiant struggle with cancer. Bestselling author of 17 novels and mentor to countless writers including myself, Dru had the gift for telling compelling tales, even on social media. This summer Dru’s Facebook status updates moved from mildly funny to worrisome to alarming in a matter of weeks. In June she chided herself for not getting the bronchitis treated before it turned to pneumonia. Some days later she announced that her pneumonia was actually lung cancer. Terminal.
Even as her health declined, Dru insisted on weaving stories. I read her blog posts (drusillacampbell.com) with increasing dread as she documented the pain and aggravation of fighting a losing battle. In late October Dru died exactly as she wished: in her husband’s arms in Crickety, their home.
Her family grieved that first month in private then invited friends to a memorial service the Saturday after Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Episcopal mass contained enough familiar elements for a retired Catholic like me to follow along, but for one profoundly moving difference. The service opened with the white robed minister and his acolytes walking up the aisle, followed by Art Campbell, carrying his wife’s ashes in a large wooden footed chest, their family bringing up the rear.
Three of Dru’s closest friends came up to the lectern to share their favorite memories of Dru. Judy Reeves read a poem that Art had written about their wedding night that made some of us blush, all of us laugh. Dru would have approved.
After the service, the same entourage retraced its path down the aisle and gathered around a marble table by the columbarium in the church’s back wall. As the final hymn ended, Art opened the chest and pulled out a small bronze box. Too small, I thought, to contain Drusilla, whose heart was as large as the day is long. He kissed the top of it, and slipped it into a niche in the wall. I said a prayer before that little bronze box and drove home in the unreasonably sunny San Diego afternoon. Rain had been forecast, but the sun shone all through the service. I like to think Dru had something to do with that.
Two days later, Maricor died.
Maricor and I met as undergrads, both of us members of AIESEC, a student organization at the University of the Philippines. After graduation, we made our separate journeys to the US along with many other friends whose careers, studies or marriages scattered us through the East and West Coasts and most every state in between. Maricor and her husband Anders Fahlander settled in Lafayette, a few towns distant from our apartment in Oakland. Anders was building his career at as a management consultant, and he and Maricor were busy raising two children. By contrast, we were living the child-free transient grad student life, traveling every year for my husband’s research. For lack of time and common ground Maricor and I fell out of touch.
When we moved south to San Diego, there was even less occasion to see Maricor. For a long time our lives proceeded on parallel tracks on either end of California, but mutual friends assured us that hers was a happy, prosperous life. I expected we would meet again at an AIESEC party in Manila or when a college friend next came to visit. Such is the nature of expatriate Filipinos.
Instead, illness reunited us. Some years ago, Maricor was diagnosed with a cancer so rare that only four doctors in the country were equipped to treat it, one of them in La Jolla. Maricor and Anders flew to San Diego and we welcomed them with dinner at our home. The intervening decades since our last party together dissolved as we caught up on our lives: they on the verge of being empty nesters, our daughter just beginning middle school.
Maricor was her usual upbeat self that night, letting Anders explain the complicated treatment she was about to begin but refused to dwell on.
After the operation, the doctors seemed cautiously optimistic and the Fahlanders returned to the Bay Area. Over the next few months, Maricor made a point of hosting a dinner party whenever we visited the Bay Area. The last time we saw her in May 2013 she looked thinner but seemed to be on the mend, eating the paella she’d prepared for us and keeping pace with us in alcohol, as Anders opened bottle after bottle from his collection of wine.
This past June, friends posted FB photos of Maricor’s birthday weekend at a villa in Napa Valley. She had turned 50 but looked 25 . As far as we could tell, she had beaten the odds.
In truth, the cancer had returned.
Maricor’s death came as a shock to many of her friends, because while Dru had used her blog and Facebook to document that final journey, Maricor told few people about her condition. We learned that in the final months, intestinal tumors prevented her from digesting solid food, forcing this ardent foodie and gourmet cook to go on a liquid diet. Already petite, Maricor shrank to 80 pounds, too frail to endure another round of chemo. When it became clear last Sunday evening that nothing more could be done, she was put on palliative care. Surrounded by her closest friends, two sisters and Anders, holding her son Simon’s hand, Maricor slipped away.
Plans for a memorial service were announced soon after Maricor’s parents and sisters arrived from Manila. Friends booked flights from New York, Washington D.C., New Jersey and Tokyo. With just two day’s notice I couldn’t find a reasonably-priced flight and Craigslist’s ride share option seemed sketchy, so I cobbled together a train and bus trip to to attend this second Saturday of sorrow. I was determined to attend Maricor’s final party, even if it took two days to get there.
We gathered at the Fahlanders’ Berkeley Hills home on Friday night, college friends from U.P. with nearly a hundred years of friendship between us. Maricor’s mother huddled with Gil and Emot, discussing the songs he’d offer as cantor of the mass. The consummate event planner, Tita Lita tried to persuade Gil to return with her and sing at Maricor’s memorial service in Manila.
“No need, Tita,” Emot assured her. “Just tell Lawrence T. to handle it. There will be more than enough people to sing at home.” Among Maricor’s college admirers alone we counted at least three professional or semi-professional singers.
I wandered between groups, chatting with Piepet and Weenee, two of Maricor’s five sisters and remembering the last dinner Maricor and Anders hosted in this house after my book party in San Francisco. That night we had joked about this being their idea of downsizing as the kids departed for college. They had traded in their pool for a view of the Bay.
Tita Lita urged food on us, but I wanted only alcohol, all the better to fill the bright spot that Maricor had left in the room. Weenee found a likely bottle of wine and we scrounged around for glasses. “Puwede na ‘to,” I pulled a jam jar out of a low drawer.
“Mahiya ka naman,” Weenee chided. This is good cabernet. It deserves a proper glass.”
We finally found stemmed goblets and passed the good wine around. Maricor would have approved.
The next afternoon we assembled for the funeral service at St. Perpetua Church in Lafayette. Simon read the speech he’d written the night before…
Gil led us through the Mom-approved sequence of hymns…
Even the priest also had fond memories of Maricor and described how she had driven to the school every day to deliver hot lunch for her son.
After communion, friends, sisters, Anders’ colleagues, came to the lectern to offer more anecdotes about Maricor. We who had known her longest — the ones Anders described as her “fun-loving college friends” – had been crying for too long by then to speak before the 150 people who attended the service.
Midway through the 7-hour bus ride back to San Diego the next day, I suddenly remembered the one time Maricor complained about her illness.
“Kakainis the way they cut me up –” she traced a finger down from her diaphragm to her pelvis. “With the scar, I won’t be able to wear a bikini any more.”
“You have cancer and that’s the only thing you’re worried about?!” I asked.
She grinned. “I don’t know about you, Marivi, but I still wear bikinis!”
I like to think Maricor is strolling on a beach somewhere and wearing one right now.
Godspeed dear friend. We miss you already.