I thought my mother’s side of the family was immortal. No one had ever been really sick. Sure I had a couple of aunts with well-managed diabetes and my mother has some aches and pain, but I never thought about a time when any of them wouldn’t be around anymore. Even their mother was a healthy 101 years old when reality knocked on our front door.
My aunt Sherry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
I am a lot like my Aunt Sherry so she always had a special place in my heart. She was outgoing, creative, really curious about the world and she loved sequins just as much as I do. She was a really cool woman who lived a really full life. Legend has it that she even had a relationship with soul music icon Jackie Wilson. She was remarkable from the inside out starting with her beautiful head of golden locks to her smile – and if you knew her, it’s a smile you will never forget.
Aunt Sherry started living with my other aunt, Carolyn, her sister – who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest caretakers around. I knew that her moving in with my other aunt meant something serious had probably changed about her health, but I didn’t ask and no one really talked about it.
There was never a real conversation about her terminal diagnosis until a few months prior. But in early 2012 she went into the hospital and my mother made it clear that Aunt Sherry only had a couple of weeks to live. She chose not to receive chemotherapy as her cancer was incurable and she wanted to spend her final moments as lucid, happy and energetic as possible.
Sherry’s diagnosis was jolting for my family. It caused a rift between her children and some other members of the family. I think it was mostly because we all unrealistically thought our family was immortal. We had never experienced anything like that before other than my granddad that passed away when I was three or four years old.
My aunt passed away surrounded by her family, including her 101-year-old mother. She held on tightly to her hand during her last few moments on this earth.
A few months later, the entire family was still missing Aunt Sherry and in complete disbelief that she was gone.
I happened to be taking a course at the entrepreneurial incubator Tech Town in Detroit when I decided I had to do something to help deal with this loss. So I channeled the outgoing spirit she and I shared her story. And I started a volunteer project under the umbrella of the Shakespeare business I was creating. That ultimately turned into Shakespeare Against Cancer. This volunteer endeavor allowed me to combine two things my Aunt Sherry loved – creativity and children. Did I mention she was crazy about her grandchildren? She could go on and on for hours about them.
It took a few months of planning, but we finally figured out the perfect template and in October 2012 we performed our first show in the Oncology department at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
Shakespeare Against Cancer facilitates local actors to go into hospitals and medical facilities and perform vignettes of The Bard’s plays for kids receiving chemotherapy and other treatments. They are short, sweet and easily-understood performances intended to serve as an arts therapy and respite. We also give the kids Shakespeare-themed gifts at no cost to them.
My family is slowly beginning to heal and I miss Aunt Sherry very much. But, every time Shakespeare Against Cancer has a show, and anytime I hand a gift to a kid and they smile, I see my Aunty Sherry.
Pancreatic cancer may have taken Aunty Sherry away, but she lives on with every dose of joy we give a child when we perform.
Samantha White is a Detroit native and the Founder/Artistic Director for Shakespeare in Detroit – a new theater company dedicated to using The Bard to improve the quality of life in the city. White is a proud Wayne State University Alum- receiving her bachelor’s degree in journalism. Currently, White is outlining Shakespeare in Detroit’s 2014 activities which will include a show in early March. For more information her website is http://www.detroitsamwhite.com/