Devon Williams was a bright spot in a pretty dark time for me, and I don't think she ever realized the full scope of what she did for my heart. There are no coincidences in this world, I believe that firmly. When I made a phone call to a cancer center in Pasadena a few years ago to locate fellow patients with a specific breast cancer diagnosis, Devon's was the first name suggested. Do you think she might be willing to connect with me, I asked the director. 15 minutes later, a fireball actress from California was calling me.
She was in a parade with me, and it was nice. It was a shadow; a pale imitation of the true beauty of that meeting. She had an amazing husband who looked at her as if she hung the moon, and 2 little daughters that were absolute perfection. The entire family allowed me to be with them every moment we were not working on the parade. For a mommy who had to be away from her own kiddos, snuggling with her sweet girls made me less homesick. And to be with such a darling, kind, charming family on a work trip? Sublime.
So that was a weekend. Devon took that and ran with the connection we had made. I received emails from her, we shared photos on social media, we called. But Devon had a passion for hand-written notes. She sent me words of encouragement, to keep going through difficulties. She reprimanded when I allowed others to try to write darkness into my future. She wrote about the flowers she'd seen that day, and about her daughter losing a tooth. She wrote life, and did so with beautiful abandon.
Then she asked a favor; the kind that drew an immediate 'no way' from my heart. But how could I say no to her, after all of this? We had become sisters, I simply couldn't say no. Her request? That I return to Pasadena, speak at an event and be photographed for a book about breast cancer patients. I don't do photographs, I pleaded. I'll speak at any event for you, dear one, for the rest of my life, but I can't do photos like that. My hair, post chemo, has never grown right. My surgery did not turn out well, so I look like one of Dr. Frankenstein rejects. She told me that this I needed to come do this...please.
Back to Pasadena. Event was delightful, just fine. Then we went to the studio, and I was heartsick. These photos were to be exposing, to show our scars. My photo shoot was private, but that still meant that Devon, the photographer and the makeup artist would see me - scars and all.
As I reclined in the makeup chair, the artist approached me and tilted her head. She told me her name was Jan, and was it ok if she moved my hair a bit so she could get a better look at my face structure? You won't have much to work with I'm afraid, I cautioned her. For some patients, chemo leaves your skin sallow and tired. Depending on the diagnosis/surgeries/treatment, some women lack estrogen which play a huge part in appearance change as well. Jan took my face in her hands, and gently smoothed my eyebrows. Look at this, she said, here, take this mirror. Do you see how beautiful they have grown back? Goodness, even your eyelashes are starting to fill in nicely. They accentuate your eyes in such a lovely way. Have you noticed that?
Why no, you wonderful Jan, I hadn't. To be honest, I hadn't worked up the courage to look in a mirror for quite some. And now this gentle, compassionate soul was treating me like I was somebody, and sharing the kindest words I'd heard in a long, long time. Turns out she is an Emmy-Award winning makeup artist, and a fellow breast cancer survivor. Heart of gold and hands of magic, that one.
Then out we walked to the photographer, Catherine. Would you like to take off your shirt, so we can photograph your scar? She asks. Lifted by Jan's kindness, I feel comfortable enough to say that, in fact, the last thing I ever want to do is take my shirt of in front of anyone. Ever.
Catherine looks at Devon, who now comes over to talk to me. Heidi, she says, in that voice of hers that makes me realize I'm about to be convinced to do what is needed. Heidi, we need for others to see that we aren't alone. This book will be published so that a woman in Topeka can realize her scars match mine. The woman in Long Island knows she has a cancer doppelganger and her mastectomy turned out the same way. That world wide, our fellow patients could find solace in our journey and boost them to continue their own paths.
Catherine, the amazing photographer, quietly told me why she was doing this. Her own mother had breast cancer. She said that for 30 years she'd saw her dealing with lack of self-esteem. When her momma looked at herself in the back of the digital camera it was the first time since her surgery that she had looked directly at her own body.
Both Devon and Catherine assured me that I could dress however I wanted. This was about showing scars to empower, to take back the idea that beauty is what we see. We are beauty, no matter what time and surgery has done to us. So I did. I wore pearls, a beautiful coat that I used almost daily since I traveled so frequently, and they started taking photographs.
Just as this photo was being taken, Jan came out from behind her counter. The warm California sunshine was just fading, and it caught me full-face. Jan laughed, and Devon asked (with a big smile on her face) what was so funny? Not funny, said Jan, just perfect. Look at her eyes, do you see how beautiful they are?
And I cried. I put down my face and cried, as I am doing now as I write this. I cried because that woman who was so willing to talk to me, a stranger, was now including me in this amazing group. Because I was blessed enough to be with 3 people who were such incandescent talents. That for a moment, I was standing there with my giant, jagged scars exposed. And in that moment my self-esteem issues were ignored and these women just looked into my eyes. And I realized the scars were now my beauty marks.
So today, I found an old email from Devon. I then went on Facebook and looked at her beautiful daughters and I see her smile in the amazing young ladies they have become. I applauded and stand in awe of her husband, doing the job of 2 parents and doing a fantastic job. I went to Jan's page and smiled as I saw she was jetting off to yet another fun gig. And I re-read the article from so long ago that celebrated Catherine's stunning work and vision.
I miss you, Devon. I'm so thankful that you encouraged me to stand in the light, pick up my face, and laugh. And cry. And feel just a bit more comfortable in this skin. I thank God that I was able to know you, that you introduce me to Jan and Catherine. I'll never delete those emails, and I'll always cherish your letters.