In Her Shoes — Tracyfeatured

Drawing of Tracy's Shoes

Tracy’s Shoes, Graphite on Paper, 28″x28″

Dear Tracy,

Happy Birthday, my beautiful friend. Today would have been your 42nd Birthday.

Back in January, I found myself next to your deathbed telling you about a project I wanted to start and asking you to pick a pair of shoes, asking for your permission to take them with me after I said goodbye to you for the last time. I explained to you that I’d been reflecting a lot on not just your journey with cancer but also with how so many of my friends were courageously fighting their own battles—with mental illness, abuse, grief or, as in your case, a terminal illness—but the outside observer would never know. That you can never really be certain what someone is going through or what their life is like until you walk a mile in their shoes—cliché I know. But important. I explained how wanted to create works of art featuring pairs of shoes that carry some significance to these important people in my life and I wanted to start the project with a pair of your shoes. I asked you to pick pair of shoes that held some significance to you and after thinking about it for a minute, you chose these tennis shoes. You said the shoes reminded you of your strength.

When I conceived of the idea for this series, I originally envisioned my friends wearing the shoes in the works of art I created. Obviously I was not going to ask you to put on the shoes and pose for photographs as you were dying. So for this first drawing the shoes are unworn. It was also my intent that my friends would write something to tell the story of both their shoes and their personal stories of strength. In your case, I am telling the story for you and I can only hope to give you a voice in the absence of your life on this earth—I am lucky that I was with you when you wore these shoes.

You were diagnosed with breast cancer in late September of 2012. I had just seen you a month prior for a quick visit in Northern Michigan and you seemed healthy and happy but a month later you were calling me to tell me that you had cancer. You very quickly had a double mastectomy and a full hysterectomy and it was determined that the cancer was Stage IV. They were not able to surgically remove it all and there were mets remaining in your sternum and spine. The goal was not to try to obliterate the cancer, it was to prevent it from spreading—you were going to have to live with the cancer in your body. I’m not sure what sort of mental space I would be in if I were to receive similar news but you quickly launched into acceptance and determination that this cancer would not be spreading and that you were not only going to coexist with cancer in your body but that you were going to live with it for a long time.

There was no other option but to think positively. Cancer would not beat down this 39 year old wife and mother. You recovered from your surgery and went back to work, continued caring for your family, your young son and husband. Sure you had a bunch of doctor’s appointments, but you were determined to maintain life as you knew it. And you did. A stranger on the street would never know that you were woman who was living with cancer in her body. You did not look sick, nor did you act sick. You had me convinced that you had found a way to peacefully live with cancer and that you were going to live with this parasitic roommate for a good, long time. You had me convinced…

In the late Winter of 2014 it was decided that you would begin a series of radiation treatments to try to shrink some of the tumors that were forming in your chest. About that same time you told me about the upcoming Avon 39 Walk for Breast Cancer in Chicago and asked me to walk with you. I signed up without hesitation.

In early June 2014 I joined you, your Mom and another of your best friends, Melissa, in Chicago for the walk. You were nervous about the walk—having just completed the series of radiation treatments that left you tired and weak. You were also experiencing bouts of nausea and discomfort from the Lymphedema in your arms and you were worried that it might be aggravated by the heat and physical activity. You were concerned about the fact that the walk began at Soldier Field and went along the lakefront for the first five or six miles. You knew for the first few miles that there were no sweeper vans (throughout the walk, volunteers circled the route in vans and you could flag one down at any time if you needed a break or medical assistance). In order to calm your fears we decided to take a taxi to Fullerton Ave. Beach and wait there for the walkers to come up along the route and then we jumped in with them.

The route the first day was a marathon’s length. For 26.2 miles (minus a few shaved off the beginning) you walked with strength. Any fears and concerns you had about being able to handle it went away with each passing mile. Prior to the walk we had a agreed that we weren’t going to be trying to set any records and be the first to finish and that we would take frequent breaks. Being the foodies that we are, we were also not going to subject ourselves to the sack lunches and snacks provided along the route—we stopped frequently along the route for Starbucks, ate lunch in an air-conditioned Greek restaurant, stopped for both frozen yogurt and then a few hours later for gelato. I know that we would have done this regardless of how you were feeling.

Our group of walkers at the Dr. Seuss Photo Op

At the Dr. Seuss Photo Op Stop, Morning of Day 1. From left: Melissa, Karen, Tracy and Me

There was only one point in the late afternoon that first day that you asked to stop and take a break. We were on a side street on the north side of Chicago on the steps of a small neighborhood church and I was certain you were going to vomit in the planters— you were overcome with a wave of nausea. You could’ve just as easily been nauseous from overheating as from the radiation. Because of the radiation treatments you had to avoid exposing your skin to the sun so you had to wear a jacket the entire time. We had beautiful weather for walking both days but it was warm and sunny. Tank top and shorts weather—not lycra jacket and yoga pants weather.  After taking some medication and resting for a bit you were feeling better and we were back up and walking.

By about Mile 23 that first day I was ready for it to be over. My legs were dragging, feeling like they weighed a ton. My hips were achy and tight and I could not wait to get my shoes and socks off but we trudged along side by side. We crossed the finished line that day in quiet celebration. You had done it. We went back to the condo that night and ordered in some Thai food, laid in bed for awhile talking and looking at magazines and you quickly nodded off, exhausted.

Mile 26 Almost the end of First Day

Almost the end of Day 1 at the 26 Mile Mark. Tracy, far right

The next morning we woke up invigorated by the knowledge that the day’s walk was a mere half marathon—13.1 measly miles. We were all sore but the soreness became tolerable the more we moved. We meandered through the North side of Chicago and headed south along the lakefront. As we hit Old Town you asked to take a break and we went into the air-conditioned comfort of Einstein Bagels. It was hotter that day and the sun was blazing and the cool air was a relief—I don’t think any of us were in a hurry to go back outside. We took our time eating, too long because when we got back on the route we didn’t see any other walkers and when we passed the next checkpoint the volunteers were tearing it down. One of the volunteers stopped us and tried to insist on getting a sweeper van to drive us to the next checkpoint so we could catch up. But you declined, insisting that we knew the city and that we would find our way to Soldier Field and the finish line. You wanted to walk the entire route that day and nothing was going to stop you. I have to admit that I was worried about you—the heat was wearing on everyone and I thought you might be pushing yourself too hard. But you didn’t stop. Through sheer will and determination you just kept walking—one foot in front of the other until we crossed the finish line. I don’t think we were the last of the walkers to cross, but we were close.

Avon 39 Finish Line

The glorious finish line!

We celebrated well that night by dressing up and hobbling into a fancy restaurant. We ate a wonderful meal and toasted to you and your strength. We were absolutely amazed by you and so grateful to be witnesses to your power. You were a sick woman who told the cancer in your body to “screw you! I’m going to do this no matter how hard you try to bring me down!”  You were a warrior—a picture of strength and inspiration and grace. I will forever hold that memory of walking with you and the thousands of other participants as one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I am so thankful that I got to walk those miles with you that weekend.

Back to January, a mere seven months after the walk, when I found myself saying goodbye to you for the last time. This time your strength was shown as you stood at death’s door. The cancer was stronger and it was time to surrender. I picked up the shoes and walked out your door knowing I was never going to see you, my best friend of 24 years, again. Those steps to leave your side and let you go were the most profoundly difficult steps I have ever taken. But carrying those size 11, beat up sneakers gave me strength. I know without a shadow of a doubt that if it were me that were diagnosed with cancer instead of you, you would have laced up those shoes and walked those 39.3 miles over and over and over again until every last cell of cancer were obliterated from my body.

So my dear T-Marie, I still have your shoes—they’re in a bin in my closet and I will keep them forever as a symbol of strength. I wish I still had you.

I hope you like the drawing…Happy Birthday!



About the author

Jennifer Stefanek

Hello, I'm Jen. I am a forty-something closeted artist and designer. This blog is a place for me to chronicle creative projects big and small in an effort to re-ignite and rediscover my creative self. I am The Picadilly Project.

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