Four months after being diagnosed with heart/lung cancer my husband’s daughter and my stepdaughter, Heather died peacefully last night in the hospital surrounded by family and friends. A beautiful young woman living the peak of her dreams. She is missed.
She is gone now
After she took her last breath
we exhaled deeply
bearing the pain of loss as her pain is no more
Our loved ones are like trees
they grow providing shelter and food for our souls
and when they fall they leave an empty space in our hearts
Yet in this very space is light
so their seeds planted within us will flourish
with the memories, stories, and lessons
that they have left behind in their wake
We hold our sadness close
continuing our journeys as better people
In memory of Heather Ann Woltz Winfrey
July 24, 1984 – October 27, 2022
Daughter, step-daughter, wife, sister, and friend to many
My husband’s daughter, Heather was just readmitted to the hospital with the final stage of cancer. Last Sunday we had her and her husband Jerald over to share a meal with us. Reflecting on this experience afterwards, I wrote this poem…
The hiss/swish of her oxygen unit keeps time
like a hydraulic clock in the background
We converse and laugh
carefully avoiding the minefield of reality
the dark mist that surrounds us all
Her lashless eyes morphine heavy
Her head chemo bald
The nasal cannula that hangs from her nose
connects her to the lifeline of air
The decline of her shocks me
There is no longer room for miracles
How can I help in her mortal struggle?
All I can do is prepare a homecooked meal
with apple crisp for dessert
We savor it in the company of family
around the table in the warmth of my kitchen
Maybe that is enough
Heather collapsed face first on the gravel. Her purple-tinged hair spread out like the wind blew it wild, The tattoo of a Volkswagen bus over a lotus on her left arm faced the sky. Jerald, her husband heard her fall as she hit the side of the Volkswagen bus where they sleep while they build their house on the Big Island of Hawaii. He rushed her to the local hospital where they drained a quart of fluid from her heart before flying her to the hospital intensive care unit in Honolulu. If he had not heard her fall she would have died on the spot.
After two weeks in the ICU on high flow oxygen, a lung biopsy, and MRIs came the diagnosis, stage 4 cancer of the heart and lungs. They found after a barrage of tests, a tumor in her heart, cancerous polyps throughout her lungs, and cancerous lesions in her brain, and on her spine. Previously Heather had been complaining of difficulty breathing and was on her second course of antibiotics before collapsing. Her doctor wrongly assumed it was just severe bronchitis. With aggressive chemotherapy, oxygen support, and gamma knife radiation her outcome is uncertain- a few months or a year or two? There are no answers as this type of cancer is extremely rare, especially in a 38-year-old woman. This is my husband’s daughter- my stepdaughter. He was sitting 6 hours a day by her bedside in her hospital room.
This morning on the way to the Portland airport my husband turned to me and said “I can’t do this.” He was about ready to catch a flight to Honolulu, Hawaii to be with his daughter that was just been diagnosed with stage 4 heart and lung cancer, a very rare occurrence. Heather, a non-smoker, at age 38 was in the prime of her life. She and her husband were building their dream on property in the highlands of the Big Island when she collapsed after dealing with what her doctor thought was a severe case of bronchitis. Her husband rushed her to the hospital. Now, she cannot leave the hospital in Honolulu as she needs oxygen to survive.
I replied to him- “yes you can. “Be a bulldog, don’t run away. Go head-on.”
“This isn’t about what you can deal with, it’s about supporting her to get through this whatever the outcome with your full love and support. She chose chemotherapy. Be fully there for her.”
I’ve had some experience with this. My darling newborn son, Gareth, contracted a life-threatening infection at 10 days old. I kept hoping to wake up from that nightmare. I didn’t. My beautiful baby was full of tubes. His little body was all swollen, hair shaved off one side of his head. Worse, we couldn’t hold him.
We were told such things as:
If he makes it, he will be brain damaged or live in a hospital for the rest of his life
Kids don’t live through this
You will need a LARGE miracle
I fully embraced option 3. They allowed me to live at the hospital while he was in the NICU. My husband at the time had a hard time dealing with the situation at all. Meanwhile, I pumped breast milk at 3-hour intervals round the clock so he could have my breast milk when he once again could eat. I rose in the middle of the night to sing and talk to him. I prayed.
Ultimately my actions saved me. Did they help save him? Well, Gareth just celebrated his 35th birthday and he is as awesome as ever! (FYI, his name in Gaelic means strength).
We want to run from these situations since it is not only painful to see the ones we love suffer, we are frightened of our own mortality.