When I was a kid, the highlight of my weekend was Sunday, when I’d go over Gram and Pop’s house. I loved going because it meant hanging out with my cousins, especially Danielle and Laurie, who were two and four years older than me. I’d scurry behind them as they waged water balloon fights with our older cousins, played hide and go seek in the cemetery behind the house and generally did big kid things.
Laurie was slightly too old to want to play with me all the time, but Danielle wasn’t. And she was just the coolest — popular, talkative, athletic, sassy to the adults, fiercely independent, basically all of things that I wasn’t. Danielle had enough attitude for the two of us. I was such a tight shadow that even years later our family members still unconsciously call us by the other’s name.
As we got older, things got really fun. Danielle and Laurie would take me to teen night at nightclubs in central New Jersey. I was awkward, with frizzy hair and thick acrylic glasses, and Danielle and Laurie would spend hours trying to transform me into a “cool” kid, or at least some semblance of one. When we were ready to go, we’d sneak a few wine coolers from my Uncle Lou and Aunt Joan’s fridge in the garage, and pile into Laurie’s car, Da Rude’s “Sandstorm” blasting out of the rolled-down windows.
In the twisted currency of teenage social hierarchy, these experiences gave me a veneer of cool, and Danielle’s model helped me to imagine a version of myself in high school that was no longer wantonly geeky but instead one of the handful of smart kids who also knew how to have fun.
After Danielle went to college, we drifted apart a bit, but still got together for holidays. So I was somewhat surprised when Danielle asked me to be her bridesmaid after she got engaged. We hadn’t spoken in months but for Danielle it was natural. “C’mon” she insisted, “my little cuz has to be up there with me when I tie the knot.”
With all of the hubbub that surrounded the wedding, we reconnected, this time picking our friendship back up as adults. Danielle and her fiancé, Mike, chose to spend the night before their wedding separately, and she asked me to stay with her in the bridal suite. Just like we did decades back, Danielle and I laid elbows propped in bed, talking and cracking up until it started to get light again. Energy drinks and under-eye concealer powered us through her big day.
A couple months after her wedding, I received an email from her. “So, newlywed life has become a nightmare for my husband and I…” Danielle wrote. She described a litany of unusual symptoms that began on her honeymoon. My throat tightened as I read, “On January 2, 2014, I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.” She received her diagnosis just three days after her 30th birthday.
Treatment occupied much of the 37 months that followed. For a while, things almost seemed to be going well, or at least as well as they could have been going given the circumstances. There was even a time when, improbable as it seemed, things appeared to turn a corner. Due to radiation and an experimental immunotherapy treatment, the “volume” of cancer that had invaded her body was cut in half. While we knew that she’d never be cancer-free, it was now possible to imagine the broad strokes of a future.
In the meantime, I had been in touch with recruiters from Flatiron who were interested in having me join their Legal team. I was at a law firm at the time, working long hours that made it hard for me to see Danielle or anyone else. When I called Danielle to tell her about the company and the offer, she said “That sounds awesome but I hope you’re not doing it for me.” Cancer had already occupied too much space in her own life and she didn’t want to see it take over mine on her account.
I accepted the position at Flatiron, and within a few months time, I was ingrained in the ins and outs of helping build a legal function. Cancer hadn’t taken over my life the way in which Danielle had been concerned about, but rather provided me with a way to contribute. Danielle had maintained her same strong, independent exterior during her cancer fight, rarely outright admitting that she was in pain or asking for help and support. I wasn’t a doctor, I wasn’t a researcher, but I was a lawyer who could put my skills to good use to help her and the thousands of other patients battling cancer every day.
Multiple times per week, Danielle’s husband or father would spend hours driving her to appointments for treatment, checkups and scans. She often told me she wished there were better treatment options closer to home. She also wished it were all more affordable. She always said yes to the treatment her doctor recommended, regardless of the cost. Giving up simply wasn’t an option.
At some point, however, the magic treatment sputtered out. Her doctors tried other drugs, but nothing could keep the cancer at bay. It is still hard to write and even more heart-wrenching to come to terms with every day, but Danielle’s fight ended on March 18, 2017. One year ago.
Until the end, Danielle preserved as much of her life as she could. The epic phone calls, making Christmas cookies with family, her love for her puppy Nola, even rolling her eyes at hospital staff asking the same question for the tenth time that hour – these were the things that were still hers. She insisted that despite the dozens of pill bottles that occupied her second bedroom, the myriad doctors appointments that clogged her calendar and physically exhausted her, there was still more than enough life left for her to enjoy. Indeed, other than some rough months when she took a leave of absence, she continued to work as a special ed teacher and literacy tutor at Arleth Elementary School. She loved her students and regretted each day that she couldn’t be in the classroom with them. Danielle also loved a great party — come football season, her top priority was making it to as many Jets tailgates as possible.
Forever my “big cuz”, Danielle continued to teach me the ways of the world until the very end. She reminded me to savor the preciousness of the simple things that you might be tempted to speed by, like the joy of eating a perfectly-made breakfast sandwich at the bagel shop. She showed me how to fight, and how to keep on fighting even when it felt like you couldn’t catch a break. And yet, Danielle still had so much to teach me, about living, persevering and the possibilities that remained.