She was a tall girl, a champion swimmer, beautiful in a subtle black Irish way.

I remember her hands, soft and white like a pianist’s. She was a wife, a gifted painter, mother and a rock to her sisters and brothers.

Her five brothers depended on her. For 50 cents apiece, she ironed their shirts and pressed their pants before dates, a task my mother disdained. In her late 40s, she began to have difficulty holding her brushes. Soon she had to give up swimming, and soon walking became painful. Crippling arthritis descended on her like a fast moving fog.

Slowly, Eileen lost the use of her legs, and by the time she was 50, she was confined to a wheelchair. Still, she kept painting and raising her two sons. Her husband created a comfortable home around her, with ramps and levels. Life went on. And then it stopped. She developed breast cancer, and the family bonded around her. Her sister Rita took her to the woods and the parks several days a week, so she could paint. Everyone did something.

Then there was Ruth. Ruth Mueller married Eileen’s brother Kenny, and they moved into an apartment nearby. The two families grew close to one another. There were all the holidays and birthdays. Ruth helped prepare meals for her sister-in-law, helped with the laundry and the boys. It was a friendship made in heaven.

Eileen’s cancer spread to her bones, and she died a painful death. Ruth was there to comfort us all. Ruth, the daughter of the salt of the earth, of solid Protestant German farmers, became the new rock. She organized the holidays and summer picnics. Her spirit, her sense of humor and common sense healed all wounds, calmed family fevers and arguments. And then it stopped. In 1996, the moving fog descended on Ruth herself. Strangely, she ignored the early signs.

In those early days, and even up into the ’90s, breast cancer was rarely discussed. Many older women now say that the disease was considered a taboo subject in their time, and many of its sufferers often felt ashamed or embarrassed to openly discuss It.

Ruth was one of those women. Despite being an outgoing person, eager to help everyone, full of humor and ancient wisdom, she was nonetheless a shy girl from simple agrarian roots. She kept her secret, possibly hoping it was not what it appeared to be. By the time she came out with it to her family, it had gone too far, and she had slipped beyond even the best medical help.

I write this today because I’m the only writer in my family. It is my task to honor the dead. I’m reminded of an ancient saying scrawled on some cave somewhere that said, ” ‘Write,’ the voice said. ‘For whom?’ I asked. ‘For the long dead whom thou didst love.’ “

I have fond memories of both women who touched my life and my heart, who informed my life up to these precious days in special ways. What I know today of love, I learned from them and the three women who surround me now.

The times, in matters of medicine, have thankfully changed. A cure is still elusive, but treatment is improving. Eileen and Ruth are beautiful memories now, black and white snapshots I keep in a book with the new talisman of hope, the tiny pink ribbon.

Since I’ve come here to this quiet space, I’ve come to know several women who have been touched by the fog.

Some have succumbed, but more, many more, have survived.

I count a number of them as friends. Barbara, Janet, Kate, Pam and my niece Ann. And there is the waitress, the teachers, the checkout clerk, the barista, the wives, mothers, sisters, who have all passed out of that terrible fog and emerged brighter, like the white sands of San Francisco when the sun wipes away the fog.

October is gone now. The search, the battle continues. The writer Graham Greene wrote, “There is only security in the grave. In life there is only hope.”

Bring on the hope.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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