It’s weird how things happen.
About 20 years ago I had made the journey to see my gynecologist, Dr. Charles Hammond, who was and continues to be a big deal at Duke University Medical Center. I had acquired him as my doctor some years earlier while a student at Duke and felt like there was no need to break in another gynecologist. It just became an annual ritual to go have a physical at Duke and he became my only doctor.
On this visit I was on the exam table and in the course of small talk he mentioned that his daughter and her husband were living in Atlanta and she was looking for a PR or marketing job. I did what anyone would do – especially someone in a completely compromised position – I offered to meet with her. Knowing Dr. Hammond then and now, he wasn’t trying to leverage my situation, and he immediately said as much.
No problem, I said. I was curious about her and wild about him, so what wouldn’t there be to like?
Within a short period of time, I met, hired and fell in deep like with Sharon Hammond McAlister. Since my company only consisted of me and a strange intern given to mood swings, I had no idea what to do with a real employee with real credentials. We shared a pathetic little office with no window and a make-shift desk. I had put an old sofa in there which was useful for sleeping off late nights. One day I gently asked Sharon if she could go do some errands for me so that I could use the sofa for a nap. Man, if she was mad about that she sure covered it up. From dating advice to marketing our handful of clients, she was on top of it all.
Some 12 years after our first meeting I learned about Sharon’s breast cancer and was honored to share literally hundreds of phone calls and a number of visits as she fought back. It’s also when I really got to know her. From the beginning, Sharon told me that she refused to look at this as a, “why me?” situation but rather as a “why not me?” Her point was simply that who gets what is completely indiscriminate and any moment of self-pity is a moment wasted.
Her grace under fire was more than I ever imagined. The only time she was really scared was the night before her last treatment. I remember it well – me sitting in my new horse barn on a hot evening with thousands of bugs fluttering around the fluorescent lights. Me, too transfixed listening to Sharon, unable to think about turning off the lights. I just watched the choreographed chaos as my friend and I talked through some “what ifs.” But even in that moment of uncertainty — Would the treatment work? Could it buy her more time? — there wasn’t a shred of self- pity. Who is this? I thought. I just didn’t know she had it in her. Would I, if I were in her shoes? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.
Within a few weeks, the treatment was declared a success but there was no time for joy. David McAlister, her husband, was diagnosed with ALS. He wasn’t suffering from allergies after all…he now had, arguably, one of the cruelest diagnoses known to mankind and a virtual death sentence.
It was a good thing Sharon was never bent on self-pity because she never got a moment after her last treatment to think of herself. She now owned the metaphor of jumping from the fire into the frying pan. Those of us who loved Sharon and David recoiled with horror from how life was spinning out of control for them. Over the years, on my regular visits with her dad, my doctor and friend, I tried to understand where all of this was headed. Nowhere good, it was clear.
But in those years of David’s descent and Sharon grasping to be the caregiver and heal herself, she never lost the grace of seeing herself among the blessed in life. How could she, she would ask, be an Eeyore (one of her favorite terms) when there were so many worse situations out there? I didn’t see how things could be much worse, but taking a broad view of the world, I knew what she meant. She continued to inspire me with her selflessness.
We talked a lot through the next five years and our conversations ran deep and emotional. When it came to an end, David first followed by Sharon less than a year later, I made the trek to Durham. Not to see my doctor, but to be one of many to help him and Mrs. Hammond say good bye to their daughter, my loving friend.
I should mention, for the record, that during Sharon’s illness my life swerved off the road a couple of times and she was there for me. She was there for me every time I needed her and in every way. Her advice was sound and her patience seemed limitless.
Familiar with Sharon’s writings and many of the stories they recounted, it was great news when Dr. Hammond told me he might compile them to share their lives, their stories and their courage. A few months later a manuscript appeared.
I peeked at it hesitantly, knowing how painful it would be to visit my old friend through these pages. The title took me by surprise. But I smiled as it welcomed me and I thought, How perfect. Lucky Girl says it all. And I knew that I had been gifted with the opportunity to be there for someone who taught grace, dignity and unselfishness. It was I who was the Lucky Girl.
Having known Sharon McAlister, I still am.
To learn more about Lucky Girl, visit http://luckygirlbook.com