|Carrie Burchardt-Pharr ~ May 23, 1950 - April 23, 2001
|For information on making a contribution in Carrie's memory, please scroll to the bottom of this page.
Cara's Graduation Party
The day is here! Hot and sunny; the backyard looks very festive. The grass is parched from the heat and no good rain for weeks, but the flowers look exquisite thanks to Dan's faithful watering. White elegant tent, tables covered in blue, bobbing white and blue balloons - Ichabod Crane school colors. The little pond with orange darting fish and frogs on lily pads is a cool oasis, and our centerpiece; the darling of the garden.
This is Cara's triumph! It is my triumph too! My gift to Cara for her shining success. I am also modeling the possibilities for Devin's graduation and future weddings. And unspoken in words but felt in our hearts, it is a goodbye party for me.
Almost from the moment I was first diagnosed I have been determined to carry on with previous plans for Cara's graduation party, despite tremendous obstacles. It would have been an overwhelming undertaking even if I had not become ill. I've been known for my talents in giving creative children's birthday parties, but I could count on one hand the number of Adult Parties I've given in my life. And not only will it be an Adult Party, it will be a Teen Party as well.
When I first talked about giving this party after my illness, frankly it was an absurd thought. I had no idea whether I could actually pull it off, due to my severe deficits in cognitive skills, very poor organizational abilities, and extreme apathy, as well as the major emotional trauma I was in. At first it was overwhelming just to pick out clothes in the morning. My brain didn't work. Even after I had made considerable progress, I was only able to clean and cook in a random fashion. Unbelievably, as the party draws closer my organization and motivation gradually improve, and I am now able to clean my house a little every day and cook. However, I'm a long way from my "old self." I am still quite sluggish when it comes to general information processing, cognitive skills, and carrying out tasks. I have a very poor memory, and some days I am quite fatigued from chemo.
Miraculously, everything comes together. Several weeks before the party my super efficient, super organized friend Kathy takes me shopping and organizes me with lots of lists of when to do what. We have many laughs about me forgetting the shopping cart every twenty seconds. Kathy is very good with me, I note; assisting me in an upbeat manner that is not at all demeaning. I remember she has a mother with Alzheimer's and an elderly mother-in-law who lives with her, so she has plenty of practice being patient. The house is in reasonable shape - though it's taken me over a month to accomplish this. People offer to help and bring food and I accept. I order the rest of the food, and am able to cook some myself.
The morning of the party I put on my favorite sun dress because it's fun to wear and because I look good in it. I carefully pin the straps so my portacath won't show. I want this day to be a joyous celebration filled with love, laughter, abundant food and drink, elegance and fun. It is all this and more.
My friend Becky quietly appears without fanfare in the kitchen before, during, and after the party doing whatever needs to be done. I call her "the kitchen fairy."
The party is like a wedding. Family meet friends. Friends meet friends. My family and Dan's family - who have not seen each other in years but who exchange Christmas presents - renew their affection for one another. There are lots of different personalities who make up the fabric of our lives, of our past and present. Relatives from North Carolina and Vermont meet neighbors and colleagues; mental health friends meet church friends, graduate school friends and other mental health friends. Nate, a former classmate who prides himself on being a redneck and who's been fifty ever since I've known him (and now has the dubious distinction of finally really being fifty) arrives from Binghamton on a motorcycle with his wife Rachel. My sister-in-law Martha, her husband Johnny and their eight year old daughter Kaitlyn have traveled from North Carolina in their motor home. Devin's bus driver Jan from his special ed preschool years is here with her husband Rich. My Mom and Wendy look wonderfully bohemian in their colorful flowing sundresses and chic floppy sun hats. I am glad to see Anne and Grady, my in-laws, relaxing under the tent conversing with neighbors.
We feast on wine, brie, and strawberries; lemonade, herbed Monterey jack with crackers and grapes; soda, dips and chips. My sister Wendy has generously brought enough cheese and crackers to feed half the county. Later we dine on casseroles and salads, cold cuts and rolls. For desert there is chocolate graduation cake filled with custard and frosted with whipped cream.
Cara is radiant, chatting with adults, socializing with peers with assorted body piercings. Young people are draped about the yard, and go in and out of the pool. Ashley, Wendy's 15 year old daughter from Vermont is enamored with the male teen guests. Devin is quite comfortable with adults and I am amazed at his poise and skill in telling jokes. He is so much like my father, although they never met.
I am floating among guests, my shyness at bay, introducing people, smiling, laughing. Although I know Dan does not particularly enjoy parties, especially ones at his house, I am glad to see he is animatedly conversing with guests, looking pleased that they have come. I know he is especially happy to see Bill and Jane, the psychologists who brought him with them from Vanderbilt to Binghamton, have been our mentors and dear friends in graduate school and beyond, and now are taking a pivotal role in supporting Cara and our family.
The bright sunlight has chased the shadows away - for this moment, for this day we get a respite. I carry off my role well - gracious hostess, head held high, proud, strong - with just enough chutzpah to make sure those whose impressions are based on earlier reports of me stand corrected. In a way, this is my coming out party to introduce the new improved dying me - who laughs in the face of death with bravery, cockiness, and a certain arrogance; who rises above it saying "Pooh-pooh!" the way brave Madeline from my childhood storybook spoke to the tiger:
To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, "Pooh-pooh."
I take pictures of everyone in the garden when they leave, and I get my picture taken with them. I have learned how to put people at ease with good-byes. I think I've got it down pretty well - meaningful but tasteful; not overly schmaltzy or melodramatic.
After most of the guests have gone, neighbors, family, and children hang out in the kitchen and laugh and laugh. We take pictures of the under 40 crowd and the over 40 crowd. My zany friend Linda who used to live next door starts telling jokes with my neighbor Ruthellen. When these two get going there is no stopping them. At my instigation, Linda, Ruthellen, Becky and I once went to a Stones concert in Syracuse together and laughed non-stop the whole trip (except when we were dancing in the isles being turned on by Mick, my ultimate heartthrob).
I am bone tired. My neighbors efficiently clean up. I don't protest. My new friend Michele who has lung cancer and is nearing the end of her journey drops by for a while. I appreciate the effort Michele has put in driving here from Albany.
Cara opens her cards and presents, as the younger cousins look on with great interest. Cara gets ready for party hopping while the adults get ready for bed. It has been a really great party!
1Bemelmans, Ludwig; Madeline, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1939.