Normally, I write about travel–worldly adventures and destinations. But today, I feel compelled to write about a different sort of journey, because I want, I need, to honor my friend Michelle Taylor Shutzer. She passed away in San Francisco yesterday, April 9, 2014, after battling Stage 4 cancer for nearly four years.
Yes. Stage 4. That’s the “last” stage of cancer, meaning it has spread to more than one organ. That was the state of things when she was diagnosed…yet she lived with it for nearly four more years.
When I say lived, I mean lived, and through her incredible bravery, determination and humor, she showed her friends how to live by example.
I’d known Michelle since high school. She was the girl with the big red hair, the big bold laugh, at the center of our big group of friends. She was larger than life, even then.
But I don’t think I really got to know her until her diagnoses. That’s when she emerged as the Butterfly Queen, head of a devoted butterfly nation, whom she called upon to lift her up.
In an e-mail to her friends on July 30, 2010, Michelle broke the news and announced her battle plan. She would eventually undergo surgery and special diets, chemo and radiation, availing herself of every medical option available, but she recognized from the beginning that this war would also be waged on another plain. Here’s what she wrote:
“I need your thoughts, prayers and for you to shine your light and love on me…It is in the spiritual realm that we will alter this reality and change the course to eradicating this disease from my body. Together, you will make up my ‘MIRACLE NETWORK.’”
She had always been a “giver,” she said. “Giving brings joy and love in my life,” she explained. And she actually apologized for asking for our help and for worrying us. (That’s Michelle for you!)
“It breaks my heart to be the source of concern for you, but I don’t know any other way to face this than just to ask. I am working to make the hopeful positive battle strategy real. The healing vision is monarch butterflies gently landing together on my body and ‘ping!’ making every poison cell disappear. The Color for this new journey is ORANGE so bold and vibrant. I’m naming the poison cells the ‘Blue Meanies.’ Who wants to use the word cancer every day?”
That’s how it began. We became Michelle’s butterfly soldiers, contributing however we could, in ways big and small. Some of our old high school friends traveled from all around the country to organize a fund-raising triathlon for her in Florida, and our friend Kelley flew her to Nevada and arranged for a hair and make-up artist to pamper her before they headed to the Electric Daisy music festival together. Those are just two examples. The list is endless.
Michelle was a remarkable woman, and her outsized heart, her giant personality, and her pure energy drew the most loyal and dedicated friends anyone could hope for.
“Your love carries me and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world that our hearts are connected,” she wrote on a website that chronicled her journey (http://michelleisamiracle.tumblr.com).
But whatever any of us tried to do for her, she paid us back a hundred-fold. As much as Michelle relied upon her fellow butterflies for strength, it’s the greatest testament to her that in her darkest hours, she illuminated our hearts. Every message from her spoke of her love, her gratitude, her hope.
Michelle may not have “beaten” cancer—but she did not let it beat her, either. She fought this disease and lived with this disease with more grace and courage than I would have thought humanly imaginable.
She has become, in my mind, a kind of superhero—the Butterfly Queen. Whatever life throws at me in the future, I’m going to try to think of the Butterfly Queen, to try to behave as she has.
When Michelle finally left this world yesterday, she had done everything she could to fight cancer. She had done everything she could for us, too, to show us such a fine example of fierceness and grace.
Here are a few lines from a poem by Mary Oliver which she posted to her tumblr site:
For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,
into the world.
Michelle is weightless now. It’s we who are left behind that are feeling the incredible weight of her loss. I grieve for her family, for those of us who were lucky enough to count her as a friend, and for those who never had the privilege to meet her.
She inspired everyone who knew her–made us want to lift her up, lift each other up, embrace life, embrace each other. I’ve never encountered anyone who moved me so much with their strength, their optimism, their attitude. That is what ultimately made Michelle a miracle.
This is what she wrote to me when she heard about the passing of my sister, Kimberly, nearly five years ago—a year before Michelle’s own diagnoses. “We go about life planning, accomplishing, effecting, contributing, producing, enjoying…as we are meant to do, but we are plagued with enduring and ultimately accepting that it ends, it goes away…There is comfort that she is home.”
I have no doubt that Michelle has gone home now, too, to a place where she can shed her battered body and spread her beautiful wings and soar, flying higher and farther and faster than ever before.
Her final words to us, on her tumblr site? “Feeling your love and at peace.”
All I know is, I’ll never see another butterfly again without thinking of Michelle.
NOW HEAR THIS: WRHS 88.0 Iron Butterfly Radio, created for Michelle’s triathlon and the Butterfly Nation by our fantastically talented friend, professional voice-over actress Kelley Carruthers Buttrick. (Her commentary is as awesome as the retro tunes). http://vimeo.com/84778599
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If there is someone in your life for whom you have a kind word, tell them today. No one can ever hear enough kind words.
Donate to a charity that will enrich—or even save—a life.
Michelle spent some of her happiest moments in her last year or so among the horses at www.theflagfoundation.org.
Memorial contributions can also be made to the Cancer Center at CPMC: http://cpmcf.org/
Additional Cancer Sites:
American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org
Marie Curie Cancer Cure (UK): https://www.mariecurie.org.uk
Cancer research UK: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org
Become an organ donor. (Not right now, you know…but when you’re done with them!) I don’t think a transplant would have saved Michelle’s life, but this HAS saved the life of another of my very dearest friends. When we leave this world, we have no need of our bodies anymore, but by allowing others to make use of our organs, we can give them a second lease on life. I can think of no greater gift.
In the US: http://www.organdonor.gov/index.html