Life & Culture

My reminder that life is not a rehearsal


It's a scoop: Karen's three boys enjoying ice cream in Princeton, New Jersey

Kate and I discovered our cancers around the same time. No, not that Kate. This Kate was a “mommy-friend”—someone I met in the playground of the nursery school at The Jewish Center in Princeton, New Jersey, back in 2011, when our four-year-old boys became fast friends. We both had babies, as well. We hung out at the park, over frozen yoghurt, and at the community pool. Kate was about five years younger than me, a transplant from Arizona, elegant, fashionable, a real-deal Mayflower-descended American. I admired her. She was the kind of woman who seemed to hold a fairy godmother’s magic wand that turned pumpkins into carriages. On her, a white t-shirt and jeans looked like they belonged on the runway; her home appeared torn from the pages of a design magazine; and even her dog, a Chow Chow, was the most gorgeous beast I’d ever seen.

While I waited for my mammogram and biopsy and later results, things in the United States moved much more swiftly for Kate. She was diagnosed with colon cancer and immediately operated on. After her tumour was removed, it was chemotherapy; her husband posted a picture of her on Facebook, head in a turban, as radiant as ever. I was still pre-surgery myself when I learned that Kate was admitted to hospice care. And then…she was gone.

Hilda found out about her cancer a few weeks after Kate died. Like Kate, Hilda was younger than me. I met her through her husband, Peter, who, long ago, was my teaching assistant. Hilda was already his girlfriend then; they met their first year of university and never looked back. In 2002, my then-fiancé-now-husband and I made what seemed like an epic journey to Peter and Hilda’s wedding in Maine. To get there, we flew to Boston from London, and before that from Rome to London; when we landed stateside, we spent the night at a friend’s sister’s apartment before making the final leg by car. I still remember how delighted we were to find ourselves staying at the most idyllic B&B farmhouse. There was a lighthouse, and we watched, for hours, the Atlantic crash against the rugged boulders that line the coast. The wedding was an outdoor reception with short-sleeved shirts and spaghetti strap dresses. It was beautiful, and Peter and Hilda were perfectly matched. They went on to have three kids, just like my husband and I did.

In September, just days before my surgery, Hilda began a CaringBridge journal; that’s an online journal that many cancer patients keep. She wrote that a CT scan suggested ovarian cancer. She had diagnostic surgery, and by the time I was home from the hospital, she had new news: it was not ovarian cancer. It was colon cancer. Thinking of Kate, I worried. But Hilda, in her journal, was optimistic. She was pleased to get a treatment plan. She shared that her first chemo session went better than expected. She was hopeful about the cancer shrinking. Later, things got harder, but she posted about a lovely Thanksgiving she had in Pemaquid—where we celebrated her wedding to Peter all those years ago. In February, she took a trip with her family, traveling to Miami and the Florida Keys. She posted happy pictures of eating key lime pie and swimming in the pool with her kids. After that, her health declined, and like Kate, she went into a hospice. Near the end of March, she died.

I read about Hilda’s death on a rainy Thursday in New York City, where I was vacationing with my husband and two younger children. It wasn’t entirely coincidental that we planned the trip to land on the one-year anniversary of my discovery of the cancerous lump on my breast. But it was also convenient: the kids were off for Easter break, and we had to be in North America for my nephew’s barmitzvah on Purim.

My oldest, at university, begged to join us. The problem, apart from the inconvenience and expense, was that he had been ill that week; he had an “everything” bug, as he called it, which included fever, chills, headaches, a severe cold, and diarrhoea. “Are you sure it’s a good idea?” I asked. He admitted he was physically exhausted. Yet, he insisted. “YOLO, Mama,” he said.

On Friday, he arrived, lurching across Newark airport and going straight to sleep, missing Shabbat dinner with our friends. But the next morning, he showered and walked across the Highline with us (pausing at every bench we passed). At dinner, a Japanese-Jewish fusion restaurant called Shalom Japan, he managed a few sips of his spicy matzoh ball ramen soup. The next day, we visited our old stomping grounds in Princeton, and he forced himself to eat his favourite ice cream (over his stomach’s protestations). On the final day, we drove to a waterpark in the Poconos, and he went on all the waterslides, taking a half-hour break between them to rest his head in hands. Throughout, I fretted, like the good Jewish mother I am. “Are you sure it’s a good idea?” I asked again.

Over and over, my son repeated his mantra: “YOLO.” And as I think about Kate and Hilda and how quickly they disappeared from this world, I tell myself that he’s right. You only live once. What else is there to do but appreciate every minute we have?

In memory of Kate Cooper Serge and Hilda Ives Wiley.


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