She had been staring at me over a chocolate soda. It was across a holiday throng at Lagomarcino’s in the Village of East Davenport, and I didn’t notice her. She worked her way through the crowd and came to our booth. Smiling, she quite boldly hugged me.
“Do you remember?” she asked. “It was 27 years ago this week.”
No, I didn’t remember. I can’t always remember what I wrote a quarter-century ago.
“I’m Cheryl, who couldn’t do three Christmas programs because I was dying.”
Then, it all came back to a sunny-bright cold December morning in 1989, when I visited with Cheryl Brogla-Krupke. We sat in her Pleasant Valley home, drinking iced tea. I remember a cardinal alighting on a branch outside the bay window and Cheryl saying — hopefully — that a cardinal is a vision, like a visitor from heaven. That was that, and teary-eyed she told of a situation that sounded quite hopeless for a mother of two small children.
Cheryl was a music teacher in the Bettendorf schools. In the week of our visit 27 years ago, she had a trio of Christmas programs ahead at Jefferson and Mark Twain schools. She had been rehearsing the kids for weeks. It was their moment of fame, and she was their mentor. She was not feeling a bit well, but was stubbornly convinced that she was the only one who could pull off those musical programs.
“One terrible thing is very wrong,” she said on that long-ago December morning, and the tears began to flow while we talked. “I have cancer," she said. "I don’t think I’m going to live. I can’t direct those Christmas programs; I can’t let my kids down. I have another doctor’s appointment at 10 tomorrow morning. What am I going to do?”
The doctor’s report was grim. A good but brusque oncologist. “He told me it was 99 percent certain that I had acute myelogenous leukemia. He said to go immediately to University Hospitals in Iowa City,” Cheryl remembered. “If I didn’t get treatment I would be dead as a doornail. I was shocked and angry. I told him he wasn’t very nice. He hugged me; he said it would be the last hug for a while.”
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Cheryl's heartbreak went into a columnist’s notebook of scraps about people and places. When she startled me at Lagomarcino’s, I told her that she was a stranger I had lost track of. We arranged for a catch-up visit last week in my office. We laughed and exchanged high-fives. I remember Cheryl had flowing, long auburn hair; now it is closely cropped. I asked if she still battled cancer. “No,” she said. “I’m fine, but was bald and short-haired for so long that I keep it cut this way.”
She told of the anger, how she fought the dread and pain for at least 18 months. “I was mad at myself for having all this, losing my usefulness. I needed a bone marrow transplant; no match could ever be found after months of search. Nothing worked, for so long. In Iowa City, I was angry at myself and life. I got some of the anger out by playing the grand piano below the round balcony of patients. They could hear me. Once, a doctor joined me.”
Cheryl regularly repeated to herself, “I have so little time.” But therapy and medicine did their job. She says now that the cancer has left. “My long ordeal left me a new person. My anger at being seized by cancer is gone,” she said during our cheerful visit 27 years later.
"I retired from teaching six years ago; my mission today is happiness. This call cannot be taken from me. I enjoy the smallest of experiences, a smile from an elderly person or the sound of laughter — from me or another person.”
May this be a happy call of inspiration to all, ill or well. It is Cheryl’s holiday hope for happiness. It comes from her, from over a chocolate soda at Lagomarcino’s, 27 years later.