Thursday, January 30, 2003

The church lady


A final message of cheer

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The voice on the answering machine was typically chipper. With the promise of a call-back she'd never make.

It's easy to be cheerful when everything goes your way. Three good kids. A husband who is crazy about you. A nice house. A mom who thinks you're just about perfect. A sister who brags about you to strangers. Friends who make you laugh.

But Anne Garifalos recorded the phone message long after she got the bad news. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, Anne said she looked forward to meeting God, but insisted there was no hurry. She wanted to get all three of her kids through college, for one thing. And she was having such a good time, for another.

Medical merry-go-round

So, she climbed aboard the prescribed pharmaceutical and surgical merry-go-round, battling for time. She endured a lumpectomy, a mastectomy and a failed reconstruction. She had six regimens of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and four series of radiation. She was bald three times.

"The good thing," she said, "is every time my hair grows back, it's dark and curly. Not so much gray."

She looked for "the good thing," which must have been increasingly elusive. Some days, she admitted that she just felt "weaker than pond water." Smart and pragmatic, she didn't talk about "beating" the disease. But she did stand up to it and even make fun of cancer. Defiant. She scoffed at her "swiss-cheese bones," instead of talking about the pain.

"Anne always had a good time," says her sister, Joan Watterson. "And she took us all along for the ride." A teacher for 16 years, she also worked at a computer company, while she and her husband, Jim, followed his Procter & Gamble job up and down the East Coast. "Anne was home wherever she got herself parked," Joan says.

Living in double time

She was a soccer mom, a scout leader, a swim coach, a business executive, and an enthusiastic and vocal Christian. She and her friends at Epiphany United Methodist Church in Loveland called themselves the "church ladies," dressing up in prissy old clothes to visit anybody who needed cheering up. "We just try to make people laugh, stir up their endorphins," Anne explained.

"Last month, Anne had us making blankets for sick people," says her friend, Nancy Roberts. She gives a choked laugh. "Sick people." You know, as if she didn't really believe she herself qualified.

"She participated in life right up until the end," Jim, says, "organizing us."

As Anne drifted in and out of consciousness, their youngest daughter was getting ready to go to work. Her mother lifted her head from the pillow and said clearly, "Wear the gray sweater and the black skirt."

Typical.

Then she "made it real clear to us that she was ready to go." Joan Watterson said her younger sister reached up and unhooked the oxygen mask, "smiling into space."

Anne Garifalos died Tuesday morning. But, of course, she'd say the important thing is the way she lived. "She always lived in double time," Joan says. Graduating from college early. Marrying young. Fifty-one years of a good life. Funny. Brave. Generous.

Leaving behind a message of good cheer.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.




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