Evansville mom focuses on family at end of cancer fight
EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Amy Higgins can’t plan the day of her death. But she’s not leaving any other details up to chance.
Her breast cancer diagnosis has left the 47-year-old Evansville woman unsure of how much time she has left.
One thing she’s certain about, though, is she wants to make things as easy as possible for her husband Jeff and twin daughters Abby and Grace.
Ensuring everything is in place
She has spent time ensuring every facet of her celebration of life is in place — 250 booklets will be given out to visitors on the day of her celebration filled with the story of her two-year cancer journey: the diagnosis, the relapse and the balance of quality vs. quantity of life.
A poem she wrote will be placed along with her obituary.
“It’s my plea for them to enjoy the happiness that I have had over the last two years,” she said. “Even though I’ve had cancer, I’ve been able to be happy and have faith and hope and trust that the right thing is happening in my life.”
Many of the items she plans to display that day are in a chest, sitting right inside the doorway of her home office. There are books filled with her blogs, photos of the family and even articles she wrote for her high-school newspaper.
The office itself contains even more mementos. There are photos from family vacations and a basket of soaps from “Amy’s Arrow Soaps,” a business she and her mother started as a way to help with the costs of medical expenses.
There’s also a large picture hanging on the wall near her desk. It shows Amy hugging Jesus as she crosses into Heaven.
Faith is a major part of Amy’s life, and it’s made her comfortable with death. Instead of testing her faith, cancer has allowed her to strengthen her relationship with God and remember the important parts of life.
“I feel like I’ve been healed enough,” she said. “In fact, the position that I’ve been put into over the past few years has allowed me to talk much more openly about my faith.”
The past and future
Amy has always been a workaholic, often working more than 40 hours a week as an IT project manager at OneMain. She traveled for her job as well. Sometimes she loved it. Sometimes she didn’t.
“I talked after my first battle with cancer about how I would not let work take what is important from me again,” she said. “I kind of felt like, if you’re not going to get your life in order, God is going to help you.”
She’s reached a peace about dying, but she still has things she longs to do — and none of them involve work. Her mind drifts to life moments like wedding dress shopping with her daughters and meeting grandchildren.
Sitting on her office bookshelf is a recordable storybook for future grandchildren with her voice reading each page to them. When she showed it to Jeff and the twins it was too much to handle. So it sits without batteries. The pages are silent whenever Amy flips through it.
Abby and Grace are only 17, preparing for their senior year of high school. Children aren’t on their minds right now. But college is.
Grace wants to go into healthcare, and Abby wants to study engineering.
Abby is leaning toward Purdue University while Grace is drawn to the program at IUPUI. This would put the girls at separate schools but only an hour away if they ever need each other.
Their desires are mom-approved, even if Amy isn’t sure she will be around for the final decisions. Amy wants the two close to each other but far enough to have their own lives.
If Amy isn’t there to see the girls go to college, she told her doctor she needs to make it through June 2. She doesn’t want her girls to grieve during the school year.
“It’s already hard enough on them some days,” she said. “When I get bad news, they struggle for a while.”
Learning a ‘new normal’
She and Jeff have also planned a family vacation to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to show the girls where they spent their honeymoon.
The two have been together since Amy was 15 and Jeff was 17. Amy said Jeff can tell how she feels without her saying anything. Jeff partly credits that to simply knowing her “normal” so well.
But when Amy started getting sick, it was something totally new. So he started to learn her “new normal” to tell when things weren’t right. He would make mental notes of her behavior and reactions to new feelings.
He created a pattern of how Amy was feeling, so now he knows if something is a recurring issue or a new problem that needs to be addressed.
He also delivers any bad health news to Abby and Grace. It started out of necessity but became habit.
“We can be honest with each other, we can show emotion and talk about our worries,” he said. “If mom was to say it, they would probably try and be brave for her.”
Preparing for a celebration
The need to be brave is a part of what Amy’s planning is set up to help them avoid.
Recently, she and Jeff sat down to go through plans for her celebration of life. He realized then that he couldn’t have planned it himself. It would have been too painful.
He choked up as he described seeing her “bright, pretty” face on the booklet knowing it would have an “in memorial” message beneath it.
Jeff is also in full support of Amy’s desire for a non-traditional funeral. If it all goes according to her plan, the celebration of life will take place nearly a week after Amy’s death.
There will be no body, no graveside service, and Amy hopes little to no tears.
The second line of her booklet reads, “Feel free to talk loud, laugh and have a good time.”
“The initial thought was, whenever I’ve been to funerals or have been in funerals, I’ve had this impending sense of dread of going through the emotional ringer,” he said.
Jeff knew he couldn’t emotionally handle having people parade past with their tears and sympathies. Especially for someone Amy’s age — someone so young to die.
“If you lose the one you love more than anything,” he said, “it’s going to hurt.”
Giving to science, enjoying moments
The non-traditional aspects of Amy’s planning don’t stop with her celebration of life. She also has completed the agreement to donate her body to science. She always wanted to be an organ donor, but her organs became compromised after the cancer was diagnosed as metastatic.
Her overall diagnosis was Metastasized Stage IV Triple Negative Breast Cancer. This means it does not respond to common treatments such as hormone therapy, but chemotherapy can be an effective option.
It’s aggressive, hard to treat and more likely to spread. For Amy, it spread to her lungs, brain, and clavicle.
So, she will donate her whole body to contribute to the study of cancer for up to two years.
After she dies, Jeff will call Indiana University School of Medicine to come retrieve Amy’s body. The number hangs on their fridge for when the time comes. Another part of the plan.
Some of Amy’s most deliberate work went into creating a call tree. She placed her family and best friend at the top, meaning they have fewer calls to make and more time to start the grieving process.
The tree is meant for the first 24 hours, after which Jeff will post a message to Facebook from Amy that is free to be shared, letting others know she has died.
With a plan in place, Amy is focused on enjoying individual moments with her girls and husband. She has made it to a couple college visits, handmade their corsages for prom and written them notes for future life milestones like their 21st birthdays.
She said if a miracle happens and she’s cured it will be because God had planned it. If there’s no miracle, Amy is confident it’s because of a greater good.
“I spent so much more time with my daughters, with my husband, with my brothers and sisters,” Amy said. “To be honest, even though I’ve had this impending thing hanging over me about dying, the quality of my life has been better because I’m doing what’s important.”
Source: (Evansville) Courier and Press
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com