Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Justin Cook wrote this ...
Ann Hartline unties her head scarf and lays down in the rapids of the Eno River in Durham. The cool water rushes over her fuzzy skull hiding the inoperable mid-brain tumor festering deep within. The genetic breast cancer she fought in 2007 spread to her lungs, and just when doctors thought she had it beat, it sought refuge in her liver. In 2010, they found it in her brain.
She laments the loss of her breasts, her hair and her femininity, but Ann says she is now focusing on the things she has, including a peculiar freedom. She has been out of work as a cardiac nurse for a while now and supports herself by painting. Ann laughs it off when her friends call her the “Lady of Leisure.”
I am impressed that Ann has started dating again, that her losses have not deterred her from living life to the fullest. Some nights she puts on a wig and her alter-ego “Wigalicious” emerges at the bars where she flirts with the men. Regardless, she oozes confidence and is strikingly pretty. I hear her phone go off. With a curious smirk, she reads me a text message from a guy she went on a date with the night before. Her voice is like Tennessee whiskey smoothed over with a splash of west coast cool. “I think he likes me a little too much, he’s on the rebound you know,” she says. Her magnetism is inescapable and people are drawn to her wherever she goes.
For example, Ann can barely sign into the N.C. Cancer Hospital at UNC Hospitals before a nurse stops her. She wants to buy a print of her work that she is carrying around in basket during her day of chemotherapy. Before the day is through she sells about $125 worth of art. Doctors and nurses light up when they see her. Ann has found solace in strangers at UNC Health Care and the SECU Family House. She has no problem telling them “I love you.” They understand.
A Family House resident, a caring stranger, reaches out to her after an evening game of scrabble and they hold hands and exchange encouraging words. She feels safe crying with these “strangers,” but she spends more time laughing. They have become family, attracted by her personality. She has found a place where, in the meantime, she can just “be.”
After all, cancer isn’t all she is. She is still Ann Hartline: Painter, daughter, sister, friend.
Editor's note: This blog post is a companion piece to this Family House Diaries story.