Toenail Polish

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                Alice and Ann PediLR 5x7 to print-0944

I am not a fan of pedicures. I know most women are and they look forward to it. Instead, I get fidgety and uncomfortable and both dread the event and am anxious for it to end as soon as possible. I do it a few times a year, mostly in summer, when it seems a necessity.

 

So when my sister, Alice told me how excited she was for us to have a spa day with her I got a tiny bit anxious and wary. A group called “Lump to Laughter” in Wilmington, NC is a kind of “Make a Wish” for women with breast cancer. Alice had gone to some meetings of theirs and placed her wish. It was a bit of an odd one.

 

For the last few years Alice had shared her disappointment in never having had either of her daughters get married, while she was still well enough to be part of a wedding and in particular, walk them down the aisle in the absence of their late father. She pushed and she prodded almost caring more about there being a wedding than she did about either daughter actually getting married. It became a frequent topic and most of the times we laughed but sometimes it became uncomfortable. “After all,” I’d argue, “No one should enter into marriage lightly and a wedding is only the window dressing of a life long commitment.

 

Eventually, Alice did give up for the most part and as her disease progressed to an “end stage” level, she accepted that she would not be attending a family wedding. BUT, she still wanted to see her daughters in wedding gowns! Well, apparently she shared this thought with the director of “Lump to Laughter” and the dream workers began their mission.

 

Alice and her daughters, Katie and Maddie along with me would head to a spa first, where Alice was taken for a facial, makeup and hairdo. I sat in the waiting area and when she emerged, she was glowing and happy. She was ravishing actually and had chatted up the makeup artist and hairdresser as she has done her entire life. How could someone so ill within her body look so healthy on the outside? I was mesmerized looking at my beautiful, still red-haired sister.

 

Next we were to all have our nails done. When I smelled the noxious odors in the nail salon I felt that they would be awful for Alice to be inhaling, as ill as she was, but would also be bad for us and insisted on masks for each of us. I immediately became the pain-in-the-butt-unpopular-girl, but oh well. I don’t know if in all my years with my sister, we had ever actually had a pedicure together. Whenever I do get a pedicure I am always so intrigued with the sisters and friends and mother/daughter combos who do this together. It is social as well as therapeutic I suppose for me it is, “let’s get this over with.” They laugh and chat and I feel so atypical. So, here it was our pedicure moment together and it was the royal treatment with heated booties, lotions and creams etc. Oddly, the pedicurist was also a tattoo artist who specialized in tattoos for breast reconstruction. Her particular specialty was areolas and nipples. Being a veteran lactation consultant who sees breasts day in and day out this was so interesting to me. But, Alice and I chatted and looked at each other repeatedly wondering or knowing that this may be our first pedicure together but for sure, it would also be our last. I chose darker polish than I usually do at Alice’s suggestion. Frankly at that point, I would have gone along with just about anything in the universe that she’d suggest.

 

When we were finally done and able to remover our masks, a lunch had been set up for us in the waiting area. Katie and Maddie were done with their manicures and a bit tired of waiting for the next event but we all ate our Panera sandwiches and required bag of chips happily and I was still stunned with gratitude for all of this.

 

A stretch limo awaited us outside the salon. We were just giddy and giggly about the whole thing and climbed in with the assistance of the handsome young chauffeur. I founds myself dancing in my seat to the loud music he turned on! Our destination was – you guessed it – the bridal shop! And so we arrived and were received with open arms of the staff who were expecting us. Alice was whisked into a dressing room where the very first pick of a burgundy lace gown was perfect. It fit precisely, the color was just right and she was beaming. I on the other hand struggle with these beaded MOB type gowns so though I was trying hard to not be difficult, I imagine I was when I first chose a black gown and then switched to a taupe one, neither of which were flattering. But again, this was for Alice not me and so I would have donned a paper bag if it made her smile. Everything made her smile though. This was her dream.

 

Katie and Maddie each chose ball gowns initially. They are both tiny girls and these huge dresses had a life and a mind of their own which made us laugh hysterically. It was a very odd experience having the staff cater to us knowing that this was just a staged event that would not end in a purchase, profit, or commission. Maddie then switched to a more form fitting gown. Both of my nieces looked stunning and it was fun however, uncomfortable any of us may have felt. Then, the professional photographer took over and began posing each of us, groups of us, “brides” and mother, etc. He was really serious about this and if anything was amiss he would shout, “Wardrobe! Wardrobe!” as if we were in a production.

 

The director of Lump to Laughter was in the shop watching and emotional. She hugged each of us. I remained in complete awe that this was happening. But more than that, I studied my sister’s face. I stared into her eyes. I so wanted to know what was there. She looked pleased, somewhat moved, happy. But, I think that the bottom line may have been this. The thrill of going to the bridal shop with one’s daughter is likely the thrill of the whole life event. The big white dress is just a part of what is happening. I imagine (and being the mother of all sons and no daughters this IS just an “imagine”) but that it includes the “oh wow, my daughter is going to be a married woman soon AND doesn’t she look gorgeous in this dress?” So, for Alice this may have been only partly fulfilling since the accessories of the scene were in place but the details and events, were not. I don’t know and I never will but it seemed so. And when the photographer tried to shoot pix with mother and daughter kisses, closed eyes, etc, it got to be too much for Katie and she called a stop to it. I think it was almost becoming embarrassing.

 

But, all in all it was a successful dream day for Alice in what would turn out to be one of her last days because in about a week, there would be no more days left on this earth. The photos are gorgeous. The limo picked us up and brought us home and though we’ve all pondered on it, written about it, and laughed about it, Alice really never mentioned it again. She took that memory with her so we will never know if it met or soared beyond her expectations. As for me I am deeply grateful to have shared that dream moment with her and her daughters for whatever it meant to her before she left us.

 

But, my dark red toenail polish is beginning to chip and I keep looking at my toes thinking , “THIS happened, while I was with my sister. HER toenails and mine were painted at the same time.” She and her toenail polish are gone. I am still here. My red toenails are still here. I can’t let the polish chip away completely because then there will be one less thing that we shared left.

 

 

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Eulogy for Alice Marie Conlon Choma

St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wilmington, NC, February 3, 2018

My sister Alice and I grew up in public housing in Brooklyn, New York in the 60’s. I share these words with you today so you can understand Alice’s beginnings and how she became the beloved woman, sister, mother, and friend to all, despite an arduous and difficult path. Alice’s very beginning of life was wrought with challenges when my mother became so mentally ill that her newborn’s life was in danger. I was thrilled to meet my brand new red headed sister, but, she was taken away to live with our aunt in Long Island for the first year of her life and we have remained eternally grateful to Aunt Agnes for saving Alice.

 

As struggling survivors in a sea of mental illness we shared an impenetrable bond all of our lives. In many ways, I was her protector but in all ways we offered each other whatever was needed for survival. We understood. We knew the secrets, the damage, and held onto the love of our father and grandmother. As years passed, we also came to find humor in the not-so-funny times that as we aged became hilarious to us. So Alice and I would lie in her bed sometimes just roaring laughing at the crazy memories we had. We also held hands in that bed and wept.

 

Alice became a nurse, which was the perfect field for her where she could offer her compassionate care to all she met. She went onto meet Roman whom she married and had a wonderful life on Long Island with her precious daughters Katie and Maddie. She would bring the girls out to visit us and our kids would play at the beach all day. It was an idyllic time in all ways despite our mother’s relentless rages.

 

When Roman died ten years ago it was a shock to Alice and their daughters. In Alice’s typical fashion, she promised me on a Friday that she felt she should stay put in their Wake Forest home for year or so until the dust had settled but on Monday she called me to say she’d just bought a home in Wilmington and was moving! I dreaded the two-hour distance between us.

 

However, it was likely one of the best decisions Alice would ever make. Her daughters were also in Wilmington at this point and Alice began creating a life for herself in which she thrived. She began dating and making friends and suffice to say that ten years later she has more devoted and loving friends than I could have ever imagined. Alice’s love for her two strong daughters is nearly indescribable and it breaks all limits of pride, hope, and adoration.

 

Alice was diagnosed the day after Christmas 2012. When she called I vowed to be with her every step of the way, but the last five years of Alice’s journey are truly inspirational. She never faltered but forged on from one treatment to another, the next plan, and always with her eye on where the next fun time with her friends and family might be. The beach called her whenever there was a ray of sun and this was truly her happy place toes in the sand, a good book and a friend or daughter.

 

Alice loved lying out on the couch on her back patio under the covers where we were never lost for words and continued to try and solve the mysteries of our past and all current dilemmas. Her patio was bliss and her yard was beautiful. The red cardinal that visited her in these last few months seemed to be on a mission and she relished in his visits. I am so grateful we got to spend Christmas Eve together.

 

But mostly Alice loved to dance more than anything and even when she was wheelchair bound for a time, she managed to go to Bluewater with her friends to “dance.” She even went on a cruise THIS past November, with her dear friend and had a great time. And always her airbnb business thrived, as Katie and I would marvel, “How can a woman dragging an IV pole meet her guests at the door and get 5 star ratings?” They all loved staying with Alice and her beloved dogs and Alice was proud of her life as an entrepreneur as well.

 

Katie took good care of Alice as she lived nearby and their love and laughter was endless. They always “got” each other. Alice’s independence was key and typically NONE of us was allowed to drive since she had to be at the wheel. In the hospital three weeks ago, the hardest news for Alice was “no more driving” and “no more living alone.” Maddie arrived from NYC and moved in with Alice and me and cared for her mother with the most devoted, tender loving care I have yet to witness, including sleeping with Alice, and following all Hospice directives.

 

It may seem odd to you to hear us say, we were shocked when Alice became so ill on Thursday morning and was gone by evening but we are. Supposedly she had a month or so left on the meter and wanted to visit funeral homes, choose urns, etc with us. We did do some of that and even then we had laughs over all of it. The directors would ask “who is this for?” because Alice looked so good. Her time ended abruptly and we have that empty feeling that will likely remain with us.

 

I don’t know what I will do without being able to call my sister every morning on my way to the office and every evening on my way home. I don’t know who will care as much about my sons as their dad and I do. I don’t know who I will argue with, plot with, cry or laugh hysterically with. I do know that it took me a long time to realize that all this time, my baby sister has had it more together than I do, with her positive, loving attitude that accepts all in every way and puts kindness and tolerance ahead of all judgments. Quoting from the song “I Want You to Stay,” “Funny you’re the broken one but I’m the only one who needed saving, ‘cause when you never see the light, it’s hard to know which one of us is caving.”

 

I have truly borne witness to Christ’s love through my sister. I am here as needed or desired for Katie and Maddie as our hearts break. As for her friends – you were her life’s blood in every possible way. YOU gave her the life she’d craved and dreamed of and I am deeply sorry for you to lose her.

 

When I leaned over to kiss my sister as she lay dying in Hospice Care Center I will share with you what I said to her. “Alice, I have loved you from the moment I first laid eyes on you, my baby sister and I have never stopped loving you for every moment you have been on earth, nor will I stop loving you until I join you on the other side and all begins anew. God bless you and keep you my dearest sister.”