Monday, May 24, 2004

Defying Gravity *

Many friends and acquaintances have told me over the past several months that I am an inspiration to them--an inspiration in the manner in which I deal with having leukemia, my strength of conviction to overcome this illness, and the self discoveries I’ve made along the way. I admit that I enjoy hearing that I’m an inspiration, but more than me inspiring others, I’ve found family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers have been, and are, incredible sources of inspiration for me. They motivate me to give back to society, to be generous, and to succeed in all my artistic and philanthropic endeavors.

Inspiration comes to us through many avenues--peoples’ actions, attitudes, observations. I spent my birthday weekend in Manhattan seeing friends—friends who inspire me in many ways from their generosity to their faith in my getting well and the love they feel for me to their own special talents and qualities. I feel so blessed to have the family and friends that I do. As I head into the transplant phase of my treatment, I feel compelled to share some of the ways my family and friends have recently inspired me.

Barbara and Dan McCabe
The moment Barbara found out that I was ill, she made the decision that I would move in with her and her family while I was going through treatments and recuperating. My brother-in-law, Dan, was supportive of this decision, though he likes to make jokes about my residing there. For instance, he will tell people: “I was the only one in Deb’s family to really encourage her to move to New York and pursue her dream of acting; I even told her she could stay with us for a while. If I’d never encouraged Deb to do this, she’d still be in Cincinnati and Karen and Jeff would be taking care of her!” We all laugh at this—it’s really Dan’s way of saying he loves me.

Dan has been great about letting me invade his home, and because I have no income and have gone through most of my savings, he and Barbara are also supporting me financially—paying medical bills, insurance premiums, not to mention the cost of feeding me. I really am a dependent at the moment, which is quite humbling, but I am lucky that I have family who will gladly and lovingly take care of me until I am well and financially stable again. Plus, this time has allowed me to bond with my godchild, Aidan, whom I love more than I can ever express.

Barbara and Dan’s generosity and love are overwhelming to me sometimes; they certainly were not obligated to bring me into their home, but they did. I have always been close to both of my sisters and I love their husbands, too. In fact their husbands have found out that if you marry one Ludwig, you marry the whole family. I guess that is what family is for: to take care of one another. Hopefully someday, I will be able to give back to them. And to top it all off Barbara is my bone marrow donor. How extraordinary that she’s also giving me back my life.

Lynn Varble
I first met Lynn on a kindergarten field trip—we sat next to each other on the bus. I didn’t know who she was because she was in the afternoon class and I was in the morning one. I recall she had a cold sore on her little mouth, but I don’t remember asking her what it was, as she said I did. I didn’t see her again until we ended up in Sister Cynthia Marie’s first grade class. We became friends quickly and that friendship has endured and strengthened over 32 years. Though she and I lead very different lives—she is a nurse and is married living in Rockport, Indiana, with husband, Dale, and her two adorable children, Kyle and Kara—we couldn’t be closer friends. Every time I visit Tell City, Indiana (my hometown), Lynn and I make an effort to see each other. She has consistently written and e-mailed over the years—ever since we left for our respective colleges at age 18.

Recently I received a $300.00 check from her. I started crying when I saw it because I kept thinking she could be using that money for Kyle and Kara. I called to thank her, and she told me that she’d wanted to do something for me when I left for New York in August 2002 because she new it would be difficult, but now was the time she felt she really wanted to help. She assured me that she’d earned some extra money and that she would rather the money go to me than to some anonymous person she doesn’t know. The money was helpful, but more than the money, it is her friendship that is the real treasure.

Lisa Breithaupt
I met Lisa in 1995 when I directed her in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” She portrayed Mrs. Frank with grace and strength—what a performance! As her director, I was so proud. Needless to say, she and I became best of friends very quickly. She went on to direct me as The Witch in “Into the Woods,” I directed her again in “The Nerd,” and we both were two of the five founding members of Ovation Theatre Company in Cincinnati. We’ve definitely been through a lot together when it comes to theater, but we’ve also shared a beautiful friendship—I was in her wedding November 13, 1999. Lisa is still one of the people running Ovation—it will be going into its sixth season this fall!

I spoke with her about a month ago on the phone and she told me that she was going to donate her hair to be made into a wig for cancer patients who lose their hair during chemotherapy and /or radiation. She has gorgeous long, dark brown, thick, curly hair. Anyone would be lucky to have a wig (cranial prosthetic is the medical term) made from her hair. She recently told me a little girl in her church is doing the same thing for children, and Lisa and the little girl decided to get there hair cut on the same day. This is a beautiful gesture and a need that is all too real—unfortunately, even for children.

Susan Book
Susan and I became friends when we both worked at CIGNA. She was in the medical division and I was in the Life, Disability & Accident department. She moved into Ravenswood Apartments, where I lived in the Hyde Park area of Cincinnati, and we started hanging out on a regular basis—going for walks and going out on weekends. Just as we were solidifying our friendship, she was given a severance package at CIGNA and eventually she found employment in Miami and moved to Florida. I never had the opportunity to visit her while she was in Florida, but a few years later she moved to Pittsburgh, and I’ve visited her there on several occasions.

A few years ago, she took her bike to Utah to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She trained and rode with the Leukemia Team in Training. Unfortunately, due to a severe knee injury, she has not been able to participate again. But she has been donating time to recruit people for Team in Training. At the end of April she met with potential volunteers. Here is an e-mail she sent to me with regards to her work that night (the message really touched my heartstrings):

Hey Deb,
On Wednesday, I spoke to possible recruits at the Leukemia Society Team in Training informational session. There were only 4 people there, but that is good.

The two Society reps started the meeting out by welcoming everyone and then they played a video. I am in the national video when I did my ride in 2000. (I will show you sometime, an actress, I am not....) I kept getting teary-eyed during the video because I remembered the great experiences I had and I wish I could do it again for you. However, knowing the treatment you had, and will have, was the result of research that I helped fund made me happy.

One of the athletes in the video was a survivor from early 90's. He said when he had his transplant, he was in the hospital 4 months, but the survivor he just talked to that day said he was only in a week! That is progress! I feel very confident in your recovery.

On behalf of you, I am going to continue to volunteer to help recruit TEAM members. I may try to do a 40 mile bike ride, but we will see....

Have a great weekend.

Jeff Blom
I only know Jeff through e-mail. He is a friend of Karen Burke. Jeff ran in the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati on May 2nd. He ran with The Leukemia Team in Training and raised around $2,700 for a nine year old girl, Katy, in Cincinnati. He ran 26 miles in spite of bad knees and finished in 4 hours and 43 minutes. He ran with not only Katy’s name on the back of his shirt but mine, too! In fact, he and Karen conspired to raise money for me to help with my medical expenses, as well. It was called: EuroK’s Flying Pig Challenge.

Karen Burke (EuroK is her alter ego—she discovered EuroK during her European sabbatical the summer of 2001)
Karen and I met at a party back in the summer of 2000, and it took only twenty minutes of talking to this woman to know that she would become a dear friend. We had an immediate connection. Karen has been the coordinator of much information regarding my treatment and recovery to my other friends via e-mail. She has also coordinated a couple of surprises—one of the latest being her EuroK Flying Pig Challenge to raise money to assist with my medical expenses.

Then on May 7, my birthday, she called me first thing in the morning to wish me “Happy Birthday.” I was in Manhattan for several days visiting friends, and I was not feeling well because not only was I fighting a cold (accompanied by a dreadful cough) that had hung on for over four weeks, but I woke up that morning with conjunctivitis! I was miserable all day. That evening Nelson & Beckie had a surprised arranged for me. So, even though I didn’t feel all that great, I was a good sport—I knew they’d put a lot of effort into this surprise. We took the subway uptown, got off at 50th Street, and walked south on Broadway a couple of blocks to a trendy Latin restaurant/club, Noches. The interior was gorgeous—several floors—first one was a bar, second floor was another bar and dance floor, and the upper floors were for dining. We were escorted to the 4th floor and showed to our table. The interior was dark, but there were square panels of red, blue, yellow, and green that illuminated the place beautifully.

Miles, our waiter, was superb. Bless his heart, he was trying so hard to make many suggestions for me with regards to spicier foods. I still could not taste a thing. What a shame to go to a restaurant like this and not be able to taste the cuisine. (Extremely frustrating.) Nelson & Beckie wanted to order dessert, and I decided coffee might soothe my throat a bit, but I wasn’t going to eat any dessert—if I couldn’t taste it, I wasn’t going to ingest the calories. During dessert I was feeling very sorry for myself and broke down crying. I was lamenting the fact that I had this wretched pink-eye and looked terrible, this cough was stifling (I couldn’t stop coughing) – all of this on top of the leukemia! I know they felt terrible and wanted to get me out of there, but there was a surprise yet to come of which I was completely unaware.

As we were almost finished with dessert, around 11:00, this woman comes shimmying up to the table, waving her arms in the air. I looked at her and then at the guy in front of her and back to her. It wasn’t until she plopped down next to me in the booth that I realized it was Karen! I threw my arms around her and sobbed with joy. That was the big surprise—her flying in for the weekend—it was so wonderful! Nelson and Beckie had been trying to figure out whether to have her still meet us at the restaurant or at the apartment. Nelson had called her on his cell to finalize where she would meet us. I recall both he and Beckie getting up from the table a couple of times. I can laugh about the whole situation now, and their intentions were stellar.

We left the restaurant and caught a cab back to the apartment. When we got home, Karen had some gifts for me—a ceramic martini glass she’d painted for me—pale pink with d├ęcor on it and three words painted around it---diva, star, and princess (princess is what my brothers-in-law call me—originated, of course, by Dan) She also gave me a beautiful pink and white umbrella (large and sturdy with UVA and UVB protection). Lastly, she presented me with a card full of checks. This was what she’d collected from the EuroK Flying Pig Challenge for me—$1,250.00. Many of the monetary gifts were from people I don’t even know—absolutely generous. What started out a rather lousy birthday turned out to be a wonderful one!

Nelson Miranda & Beckie Wilson
Mr. Miranda made my acquaintance back in 1996 when I portrayed Sally Talley in Talley’s Folly. However, I did not really become friends with him until I started hanging out with Karen Burke—they both worked at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati at that time and were very good friends. Eventually, he not only became one of my dearest friends, but also a fabulous dance partner! This Latino man has quite the moves when it comes to salsa, meringue, cha-cha, and rumba.

In April of 2002, he moved to Los Angeles and there he met a lovely British dancer, Beckie Wilson, who moved with him to New York City in September of 2003. When he moved to New York City I was so thrilled. I had only been in the area a year, and though I had made some friends, it was so wonderful to have someone very close to me here. The first time I met Beckie I fell in love with her—a warm, sincere, beautiful woman. She and Nelson have been so good to me—even before I was diagnosed with leukemia.

Every time I come into the city, they want me to stay with them. Nelson and Beckie have told me, “our place is your place—we want you to come and go as you want.” They are both so generous to me. I stayed with them for six days and five nights over my birthday weekend, and they didn’t feel like kicking me out—that’s how great they are. They also call me very often to check in and see how I’m doing (as do so many others).

Joseph Rodriguez
Joseph and I both began studying acting at the T. Schreiber Studio in October 2003. Joseph was my second scene partner and we worked on a volatile scene from Lanford Wilson’s (my favorite playwright) play “Burn This.” I enjoyed working with Joseph so much—what a pro and so talented. He made my work better, and I completely trusted him. We both gained a respect for each other as artists while working together.

When I got sick, he was one of the people from class who called (and still does) on a regular basis to check in on me. I love how our friendship has evolved and strengthened over the past five months. He is a good listener and genuine in his caring for me. I have many talented friends here in New York City as well as in other areas of the country. However, Joseph’s unique talent inspires me to perfect my craft and keep acting so that when I am cured, I will jump back into the acting world and find a way to make my mark. As he told me, “I need some good leading ladies.” “I’m a great leading lady!” I responded.

Dan Gallagher (The inspiration for writing this article)
My friend Scott Sponsler (another founding member of Ovation) hooked me up with Dan over e-mail before I moved to the northeast. Dan and I e-mailed for months (he’s a very busy man) before we actually met. One Friday night I went down to Chelsea and met him at Food Bar. In no time we were talking about everything! No topic was off limits and at times it got a little racy—it was so fun. I couldn’t believe how instantly we connected. The next day I received an e-mail from him stating—“oh, my God, you are my new best friend!” I’ll never forget it—I told him I felt the same way.

Unfortunately, Dan and I don’t get to spend much time together, but when we do, it’s like long-time friends picking up where we left off. That type of relationship is so important to me (and I have many of them). It’s not the quantity of time you spend with someone but the quality of that time.

He gave me a wonderful gift on May 6. He took me to see the new Broadway musical Wicked. I absolutely loved it—funny and touching, and it gives one an entirely different perspective on The Wizard of Oz. I wanted to cry after the show because I enjoyed it so much. Afterwards, we went to the souvenir counter and Dan (being generous) bought me a souvenir program, a CD of the cast recording, and a CD Idina Menzel (she played the Wicked Witch of the West—Elphaba) recorded. I couldn’t believe he bought these for me, but he said, “You’re going to need something to listen to while you’re in the hospital.”

A few days later, I received the following e-mail from him, and it made me look at the lyrics from Wicked more closely. Thus, he supplied the inspiration to write this article.

I just wanted to tell you how happy it made me to share the magic of this musical with you. And it's interesting to me how differently I looked at it after being reminded of the experience you are going through. And how certain songs have taken on new meaning. I truly believe that you are "defying gravity" right now. And I pray that you continue to fly as high and as far as your dreams will take you. I know that you will get past this and continue to do amazing things with your new found courage, heart, and state of mind. And I'm comforted to know that, through it all, you have a wonderful group of friends to support you through it all. I mean, let's face it're "POP-uUUU-larrrr".

I love you.


Mr. Gallagher gave me a theme song—it makes me shed tears of joy, gives me chills, and excites me every time I hear it. “Defying Gravity” is about overcoming fear and fulfilling your potential. I am not going to be afraid anymore of doing the things I want to do in life. It’s about no longer playing by the rules—some rules are meant to be broken. When this segment of my life is over, I will approach life very differently—I’ve already begun to do so. Dan bestowed on me a theme song, and I really believe it is another bit of inspiration that I will use to conquer this disease and then go forward to make my life unbelievable, and since our lifetimes are so brief, remember: there is no time to be afraid.

With all the unpleasantness, strife, and hatred that seems prevalent in today’s world my little corner of it is filled with love, and for that I am truly grateful. The song For Good* is also from “Wicked.” Glinda and Elphaba sing this when they are parting forever. The song is so touching and it expresses beautifully the affect friendship has on our lives—how deeply the people who enter our lives—no matter how briefly—leave an indelible mark on us. Because of the people in my life, I have the will to win this battle and to emerge a better person, who can make a real difference in the world in many ways—creatively, spiritually, and philanthropically.

Here are a few other notable gestures of kindness that have inspired me: 1.) Shelley Saville and Russ McCabe who have given much of their time to drive me to Hackensack for my clinic visits; 2.) Lani Ford who had an emergency appendectomy one week prior to a party for me on May 8th, and who somehow drug herself downtown to see me when she should’ve stayed home and recuperated; 3.) Shelley Saville, Bobbi Kravis, Chris Daftsios, Lani Ford, and Marni Penning, who visited me during my last couple of hospital stays when I was feeling quite lonely; 4.) Karen Ludwig Purvis, Karen Burke, Katie Rice, and Natalie Bauman for taking a week of their time to come to New Jersey to help care for me after chemotherapy; and 5.) Dena David (I have yet to meet her) who came up with the idea of putting a gift box together for me which was filled with gifts, letters, and cards from many friends from all areas of the country. I could go on and on and on…Cindy, Maria, Geralynn, Jen… (…and I’m not exaggerating.)

I wish I could list everyone who has done something nice for me, but there have been so many lovely gestures I cannot possibly write them all down, or if I attempted to do so, I know I’d inadvertently exclude someone. Be assured that every person and act of kindness is stored in my heart, and my memory is very good. I feel an enormous circle of love surrounding me, protecting me, strengthening me, and willing me to get well. I am the luckiest woman in the world to have so many beautiful people in my life, so I’m using the lyrics from For Good to express to Mom, Dad, Barbara, Karen, Dan, Jeff, Aidan and the rest of my family and friends how I feel—I love every one of you!

* Defying Gravity and For Good from the new Broadway musical Wicked –Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz - I do not have permission to reprint the lyrics here, but they are worth seeking out because they are meaningful and beautiful. Stephen Schwartz granted me permission to reprint the lyrics of "Defying Gravity" in my book Rebirth: A Leukemia Survivor's Journal of Healing during Chemotherapy, Bone Marrow Transplant, and Recovery.