Nurturing Brenda's Memory

Nurturing Brenda's Memory

Tree, bench installed behind Great Falls Elementary School in honor of Brenda MacDonald.

"It's been 11 weeks since Brenda passed away," Chad MacDonald said, looking up toward the sun as if watching for a friend to arrive. "It was on a Sunday ... every Sunday since has been a clear, blue-sky day."

MacDonald said he takes comfort in the "little signs" his wife continues to send him in her absence: brilliant pink sunsets, sunny days, the love and support of family, friends and neighbors who have agreed to care for him and his three sons, Zachary, 12, Matthew, 10, and Kyle, 8, since his wife passed away in April.

Brenda MacDonald was first diagnosed with melanoma, a severe form of skin cancer, in October of 1999. After five years, she was thought to be free of the disease known by oncologists as "The Beast," he said, until she had a relapse in December of 2003.

"It had been five years and one month," he said. "We thought she was free. We attributed it to a bleeding mole between her shoulders."

MOST CASES OF melanoma are thought to have their roots in blistered sunburns received during puberty and adolescence, MacDonald said. That means, he said, that many people who used to spend summers slathered in baby oil with aluminum foil reflectors have reason to be concerned, and should consider the importance of sunscreen and getting regular checkups.

"It started with a bleeding mole between her shoulders," he said. "Then she got tremors in her arms, she started getting dizzy a lot and being really strongly fatigued."

She had been cancer-free for five years and one month.

"At the time, the doctors only gave her a couple of months because it had started to spread," MacDonald said.

Luckily, a friend had a connection with a doctor at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, which not only provided access to some of the nation's best doctors but new medicines and procedures which he believes bought his wife, their sons, their family and friends some precious time.

"She was able to have surgery almost immediately after her diagnosis," he said. With that surgery, a golf-ball-sized tumor was removed from her brain.

As a result of that surgery, Brenda MacDonald's head was shaved. It was the only physical evidence of her illness almost until she died.

"Right until the end, she had such a healthy glow about her that it was really a shock to people when she died," he said.

During her illness, the MacDonalds spoke with doctors from around the world, especially Australia, a country in which one in seven people are diagnosed with melanoma.

"There are actually more cases of melanoma reported than cases of HIV," he said. "It is the second-leading cause of death for women between the ages of 25 and 40, and there's been no progress in treating the disease in more than 30 years. The thing is, 90 percent of the time, it's a preventable disease."

Despite heavy treatment, specialized diets and supplements, Brenda's 16-month battle with melanoma was one she could not win.

"We were always very honest with the boys," he said. They joined the Life with Cancer group through Fairfax INOVA hospital to discuss her illness and help their young sons understand what was happening to their mother, trying art therapy and counseling to help them deal with their situation.

"The boys knew from the beginning, the potential fatal nature of their mom's illness ... we took every advantage, every chance we had to live life to the fullest and to love Mom while she was with us. So often we take family for granted, and we didn't want to do that," he said.

The outpouring of love for Brenda has shown itself in many ways, said Chad MacDonald, calling it "overwhelmingly embarrassing."

MEMBERS OF THE Great Falls community have done everything from fixing dinners, holding memorial services and washing the family dog to help him and his sons cope with their loss.

"We've had something like over 200 dinners brought to the house," he said. "It's just unbelievable."

For a man who married his high school sweetheart, had three children with her and now has to raise them without the love of his life, he knows he is not alone.

"We had a great life together ... everything, every dream that could have come true, from high school to today, came true, with the exception of this disease," he said.

His family, both biological and extended, are all in the Fairfax County area and have provided tremendous support, he said.

And the community they lived in is continuing to open its arms and do what it can to make sure Brenda's legacy lives on.

Monday afternoon, a dedication ceremony was held at Great Falls Elementary School's picnic area, recently landscaped and brought back from disarray, to feature a bench and tree in Brenda's memory.

"Brenda loved being outdoors. She loved bird watching and going to the beach," said Elaine Tholen, a longtime friend whose son Nicholas is the same age as one of the MacDonald boys.

The addition of a Japanese Snow Bell tree in the northeast corner of the school's picnic area is a fitting tribute to MacDonald, she said, who would have enjoyed seeing the area beautiful again.

"At the school, there was this one area that no one had paid any attention to for all these years," Tholen said. "When we decided we wanted to do something for Brenda, we had to redo this whole area. She'd be so happy to see something like this that could benefit the kids."

Working on planting the pink and purple flowers that surround her sister's bench, Debbie Passuth said Brenda would have liked the beauty of the area.

"Her yard was always wonderful," she said. "What they're doing here is what she'd do in her yard."

Older by four years, Passuth said she can see her sister sitting in the bench, enjoying the scenery while her sons played nearby.

"Brenda was a loving, giving person. When we were children, she was always trying to please me and make me happy," she said. "You always appreciate those things more when you're older."

Taking a few moments to scrub some rust off a picnic table before repainting it with green spray paint, Norah Geraghty said her friend would be touched by the tribute.

"It's amazing that there's been such a transformation in just a few days," she said. The picnic area had become run-down due to lack of maintenance; photos taken on Thursday show overgrown mulch, rusty tables and unkempt surrounding areas that had been revitalized in only three days.

"We all did the same thing as kids, we all went outside and toasted ourselves in the sun," Geraghty said. "The awareness is so high now because of what happened to her. It's spreading so fast ... we know that if we don't take care of ourselves, if we find something and don't take care of it, that's it."

WHILE THE GARDENING and repainting were being done at the school Sunday morning, Zachary was playing kickball with some friends and his younger brother Kyle was playing in a soccer tournament.

"This is awesome for them to do," he said. "I think she'd really like it."

In the few months since his mom died, he misses her smile the most.

"She was always smiling. She'd always be helping at the school," he said. "I still miss her."

As does her nephew, Michael Passuth, whose love of his aunt and poignant memories of her life give him a maturity that makes it hard to believe he is a mere 11 years old.

"She was really good. She had a good heart. She was always thinking about other people," he said. "The really disappointing thing is, no one expected this death. Five years ago the doctors said it wouldn't come back, but in December of 2003 she started running into walls, which was a sign the cancer was back."

The last time he spoke with his aunt, he was in Pittsburgh and asked her if she could try to hold on until the morning, when he and his family would be back in Virginia.

"She really did try," he said. "She always thought of people other than herself, and that's what I think is really important. She had a good impact on the world — she set a good example for other people."

Dealing with his aunt's death has not been easy for him.

"I can't imagine what it would be like to be Zach or Kyle or Matt right now," he said. "It makes me think if my mom or dad is going to die ... It's a weird feeling."

His love for her helps him keep her memory alive and, as a result, he's learned a hard truth many older than him have a hard time grasping.

"It's something we have to live with ... It's a part of life," he said. "I just loved her for everything."

One good thing to come from Brenda's illness is the increased awareness in the lives of those who loved her.

"There are so many people that this hit home with," said Bev Lane, a friend of the family and one of the women who calls Chad MacDonald frequently to see if she can help with the boys. "Everyone wants to do something. This is an opportunity to help," she said.

LANE HELPED COORDINATE all the paperwork needed for the work in the picnic area to be completed in time for the end of the school year, when Zach will leave Great Falls Elementary School for Cooper Middle School.

"The boys just don't know what to say" about their mom's memorial, she said. "It has to be so hard."

"The boys know their mom was special and how great she is," said Dori Salamone, another friend.

She agrees with having a heightened outlook for suspicious moles or spots on her skin.

"I had a full body check the other day," she said. "Who would have thought before to have that done?" she asked.

"She was such a wonderful person," said Cathy Bowen, Brenda's mother.

When Brenda was a little girl, neither she nor her mom thought about the importance of putting on sunscreen, Bowen said. "You didn't have sunscreen then, and Brenda was always out in the sun. Make me tan was all she thought about," she said.

Her daughter would love the bench and tree, she said. "Brenda loved beautiful things like trees and flowers. If I didn't have one, she'd make sure she got one for me in my yard," Bowen said.

In the two months since her death, not a day goes by when she doesn't think about her daughter.

"She is missed and loved so much," she said. "Brenda used to read to the boys before they went to bed and kiss them goodnight. I bet they miss that."

The tree and picnic area were pulled together in record time, thanks to Fine Landscaping and CLS Landscaping, Lane said. "This all started with the bench, and then it became the whole area," she said. "This bench is perfect for her. Some of her classmates from high school are having a plaque made for her but it's not quite done yet. They're having this beautiful inscription put on it, about Brenda and sowing seeds in the community through her children."

During the memorial service after Brenda passed away, Chad's brother reminded their family that remembering her was not just something to do that one day.

"He said it was from this day forward," Salamone said. "It's about having the rest of our lifetimes to celebrate her. It's my promise to Brenda to help look after these boys and her family."

With that, she passed her pruning clippers to her husband and went back to work, making sure the garden, the tree, the picnic areas and the family would be ready to celebrate Brenda's memory, not just during the dedication, but for the rest of their lives.