The world has lost a shining example of resiliency and perseverance. Monica Pence Barlow epitomized the motto: ‘Never Give Up.’ She was my second cousin, and when you are from a family as large as mine (I believe there are 74 first cousins on my Mom’s side of the family) you really can’t possibly know everyone. Over the past few years, I got to know Monica more as our lives paralleled. I remember she and Tony speaking to one another at a Christmas party right before he had started his first clinical trial. She was diagnosed several months before Tony, and the conversation ended with “I’ll pray for you, Tony.” He was touched by her sincerity and strength. It was exactly what he needed to hear before going into his clinical trial.
In January, Monica began coming to Nashville for a clinical trial at Sarah Cannon Research Institute. She did not look or behave as someone sick or in pain. She walked into her appointment, head high. When she described her side effects and symptoms to the nurse at one appointment, I couldn’t believe it. She had just been on the phone, talking to someone in the Orioles office, tying up loose ends for the big Fanfest. Strength.
On the way home, she turned to me and said, “I noticed that you knew where everything was in the hospital. Was this hard for you today?” I confessed that there was just one difficult moment. I remembered how Tony would go sit down in the waiting room, as I would check him in for his appointment. Today, when I walked into the waiting room, and turned around, I saw a shaggy-haired young man with his head in his hands, staring at the floor. A couple of years before, I had turned to see someone else in this same position. It literally took my breath away. I didn’t cry. I didn’t want to run. I just remembered.
“If it’s too much, Sarah, I can stay at Hope Lodge.” “Monica, if you can do this, I can certainly do this.”
She talked candidly about cancer and how it would not define her life. Her job gave her great joy, and it was a welcome reprieve from cancer. “I don’t know if I have months or years, but I will not let it take over my present life.” Courage.
After I dropped her off at the airport, I had some time to think. How does someone so young become this strong? Did she learn this from her parents? Her grandparents? Was this a trait that passes through the generations? I knew stories of the benevolent, hard-working great-grandparents that she had never met. It struck me that it didn’t matter that she had never known them because she had lived her life exactly as they had. It made me think about my students over the years who miss days and days of school or never complete homework because they “don’t feel good.” I thought about their enabling parents who rob their children of the opportunity to learn to persevere when things are tough.
I had meant to ask her permission to write about her on her last planned visit to Nashville, but I never got the chance. This week, I’m going to take a short break from teaching about ocean tides, to teach my sixth grade science students a lesson about character. They are going to watch the Baltimore news piece about Monica Pence Barlow. We are going to talk about digging deep when things are tough, and being not a spectator in life, but an accountable participant. Monica will be their example.
Tony’s birthday recently passed. A day after his birthday, I saw that my teenage daughter had posted something on twitter. In the picture, she is a little over two and in her Daddy’s arms. The text below the picture read : “Unable are the loved to die. For love is immortality.” I would offer these words to Monica’s family, but I am certain they already know them. They learned this from their parents, grandparents and generations before. Monica will touch lives to come, not because they will know her but because they will know of her.