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This is for Abby

September 6, 2009

"Forget the past, live the present, tomorrow may never come."

- From Abby Deal's Dodger yearbook, 1999

This is for Abby, and this is for love. To know one was to know the other.

She was born in September. Sept. 4, 1981, to be exact. From the time she could toddle, she ran.

"Always in a hurry. Gotta go. Gotta do," says Darci Mersch, of Clare, her mother. "Run. Skip. Cartwheels down the mall."

Good? I ask.

"Not always," says Darci.

Looking back, it's easy to think Abby had reasons to hurry. At 21, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. By 25, she was gone.

Darci is my cousin; to Abby, I was "Aunt" Jane. Our family often said she reminded them of me. I think it's because we both had halos hanging on our horns.

Even though I missed the lion's share of her young life because I was away from Iowa, I was blessed to witness the final extraordinary years of her life.

What can I tell you that won't pale with knowing her? That she loved white cake with white frosting, just like her grandma, Patsy Chalstrom, of Coalville? That she adored pets, especially the Doggie Love of Her Life, Luke?

That her favorite color was pink?

Blond-haired. Blue-eyed. A real pistol in the best sense: a pistol with a cause.

Abby was drawn to the underdog, the wounded, the person most likely to need a hug. I suppose her inner compass turned her toward nursing because, really, she was a natural healer.

About the time she enrolled in the Iowa Central Community College nursing program in Fort Dodge, Abby was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. It was during her first treatments that she fixed her sights on becoming an oncology nurse.

Her education came the hard way.

Too soon she learned her cancer had spread to her bones.

Her mother was stunned. There in the clinic, she held the letter Abby's doctor had drafted. It explained to Darci's employer that she would often miss work for what, he wrote, would be the rest of Abby's life.

Three years.

What do you do with three years?

You live life on Abby time.

Between treatments, the family went to Florida because Abby had never seen the ocean. When she wasn't too sick, they boated on Okoboji.

In the meantime, Abby made friends. Well, not just friends. Admirers. She spoke for survivors, and twice walked the Komen Race for the Cure in Des Moines. She did Relay for Life in Fort Dodge, and joined a breast cancer support group. On her CaringBridge Web site, she posted her thoughts.

Aug. 28, 2005: "School is beginning on Wednesday! I am excited to go back although I don't know if I will be able to handle it. I have been advised to only take a couple of classes. I'm going to give it a shot and see how it goes."

May 25, 2006: "The tests came back that the cancer in my breast seemed somewhat SMALLER. The other test showed no sign of cancer progression either (you can have pain when the cancer dies as well). I pray that it continues that way. They gave me another shot, to help block my hormones assisting my current medication. I go back in a month.

"We have a lot going on right now: Katie is graduating Buena Vista, we're moving, and Mom's wedding is coming up!! It is a lot to deal with, but it will all work out. I am waiting to get my computer hooked up at my new house; that's about all that we have left to move.

"Yesterday when I woke up my pain was 100 percent better so I mowed and used the weed eater, planted flowers and did some other work outside as well as in. It was a very productive day. I enjoyed being able to do it; considering the day before I was in tremendous pain."

For sweet, happy moments, life went up, up, up.

Then it came down.

Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006: "It has been almost two weeks now since I got the news about my friend, Kristen. Kristen is one that so many of you had prayed for months ago, also fighting breast cancer. She had been given six months over a year and a half ago, her strength was amazing. I guess she had gotten bad earlier in the week, slipped into a coma that Wednesday, and then passing on that Friday, Aug. 18, 2006. That news was really hard for me, tying a knot in my stomach. She was only 30."

Late in the summer of 2006, Darci married Gary Mersch, of Clare, so both daughters - Abby and Katie - could walk their mother down the aisle.

It was a glorious August day, and Abby was beautiful.

I didn't see what the makeup hid.

But Katie did.

Katie Deal had delayed her graduate school plans to live with her big sister through the end of her life.

It lasted eight months.

"We had a love-hate relationship for many years," Katie says of their childhood. "I was the annoying little sister. Then once we became teenagers we got really close."

In the little house they shared in Fort Dodge, Katie took charge - sort of.

"She would get odd cravings at times - steak and fried cauliflower. Not at the same time. And Gatorade. Lots of Gatorade. Those were her staples for quite a while." They ate when Abby was hungry. "There were times when we'd be grilling steaks at 11 o'clock at night."

Katie says about those months together, from July 2006 to February 2007, "We went to each other for things we couldn't go to anybody else for. That included her fears about dying."

Tragedy can either break us or make us.

Abby's family chose the latter.

Today, Katie is clinical supervisor for the Youth Shelter Care of North Central Iowa Girls Remedial Learning Service in Fort Dodge. She was awarded her master's from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in June 2009.

Last spring, Darci and Gary decided one way to honor Abby was to bless someone else. They endowed the Abby Jean Nursing Scholarship at Iowa Central. The idea was to help someone become a nurse, because even though Abby achieved a lot in her short life, she was ultimately too sick to finish school.

Last week, they decided that Caitlin Jones, 18, of Gowrie, should get the $1,500 award.

"I have a love for working with people," Caitlin wrote in her application, "and I'm compassionate in every situation. I love the medical field, but going the doctor route just wasn't for me. Nursing gives you the opportunity to have more contact and develop lasting relationships with the patients. Doctors are great people, and I appreciate what they do, but every time I try to think back on a visit to the hospital or doctor's office, it was always the nurses that made me feel like I was important and that they were doing all they could to make me at least feel comfortable, if not better.

"That is the feeling I want to instill in people I'm around."

Caitlin was the family's unanimous choice.

"Me and my mom both cried. It's such an honor," says Caitlin. "I just want to tell her family thank you so much, and I'm really glad that they took the initiative to do something in her honor."

Last week, Caitlin got that wish. They met.

Her mother, Lori Long, of Gowrie, cried.

Well, most of us did.

When Abby realized in the winter of 2007 that she was going to die, she asked this: "Mom, will you take care of Luke?"

He lives with Darci now.

I believe that somewhere, unseen, Abby is reading this over my shoulder.

I'll tell you why.

There's a story about pennies that goes something like this: If you see a penny lying on the ground, it's a sign that the person who has passed is watching. That she's with you. Even though you can't see her, she can see you.

And we believe it.

When I began writing this, I worried. I worried that I could not portray in words the beautiful spirit that was the Abby we loved. I worried so much that, finally, I had to step away from the computer and clear my head.

I promptly ran into a friend whose sister is dying.

She said, "There's just too much cancer."

We hugged, then I turned to walk home. At my feet, scarred and weathered, was a penny.

Jane Curtis is an editor for The Messenger and a writer.



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