A dear friend died of breast cancer eight years ago on October 5th at the tender age of thirty-two. I learned this week that her husband is holding annual tennis tournaments in Atlanta in her honor to raise funds for early breast cancer detection.
The week that Kim Chance Atkins died, I didn’t know about it as I was in the midst of a move from Phoenix, Arizona to Santa Monica, Calif. The last time I spoke with her was that August, a few weeks before my wedding. Kim was worried about hurting my feelings—so typical of her to worry about others. She had called me in Phoenix to tell me how sorry she was she’d have to miss our wedding. Her family always spent Labor Day weekend together and she just didn’t want to miss it this year.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it as I remembered getting together with her family in Gatlinburg, Tennessee one Labor Day a few years earlier. I knew it was a special weekend with her family in the mountains. She assured me she was feeling great—but in retrospect, perhaps I should have known that she wasn’t. She insisted that she was feeling better, and she sounded terrific on the phone. I remember laughing as I heard her adorable four-year-old daughter, Abbey, in the background doing cheers and Kim telling me, a former cheerleader, that she had become “cheerleader crazy.” At one point, she had to put the phone down and tell her daughter to pipe down. She seemed filled with energy—she sounded terrific. She insisted that I send pictures of the wedding and we spent the remainder of the conversation talking about my crazy family and wedding arrangements.
I arrived in Atlanta two days before the wedding and was thrust into a whirlwind of activity. I remember wanting to get into my car and drive out to Conyers to see her—but between my completely irrational mother, who was overwhelmed and snapping at everyone, the politics of my future in-laws who wouldn’t stand for sitting near each other, my sister who “forgot” she was to be my maid of honor, and my dad who wasn’t sure he’d be able to come since he had a patient emergency, well, you get the idea. I had entered wedding madness. And wouldn’t it have been fun to later have a laugh and tell Kim all about it.
But, those days are long over. I’m convinced now that she knew her time was coming to an end. I’ve heard from cancer experts over the years that often people with cancer are given a gift of a reprieve from pain and a boost in energy just before they die. I’ve often wondered if it’s God’s way of helping family and friends remember their loved ones that way—full of energy, full of life. It doesn’t happen to all cancer patients, clearly. But it certainly happened to Kim, as she took two vacations with her husband and beautiful daughter in the month before she died. I am so glad that she was given that time. I am so glad she didn’t come to my wedding—that she knew to spend every moment with them.
Kim was a blessing to everyone who knew her and her thirst for life made it hard to believe there would come a day that she wouldn’t be here. Sadly, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at a very early age—just after graduating from college. I remember thinking at the time how impossible that should be. You’re not even supposed to get a mammogram until you’re forty! She fought this disease for years and what is so inspiring is that she still managed to teach up until she died. She was also an engaged mother and active in her community and taught bible study. She did more while sick than I have ever done healthy!
The last time I saw her was nine months before she died. She came to a Christmas/Going Away party that my then fiancé and I threw before moving to Phoenix. Kim was wearing a black and white checked mini-skirt, a red chic sweater, and her face looked radiant. She and her husband were standing under the mistletoe in a doorway in the kitchen chatting with folks. At one point in the evening, Kim had asked me to help her write down thoughts and put together a book of sorts for her daughter. I had been writing for a newspaper in Atlanta as well as for Cancer.org.
I told her I’d love to and then, shockingly, I didn’t follow through. I’ve felt so horrible about that ever since. Why didn’t I schedule a phone call once a month? Why didn’t I help her write letters and put them together each month and later bind them into a beautiful book for her daughter? All I can say is that I’m terribly, terribly sorry. I hope Abbey knows how wonderful her mother was. Perhaps her memories of her mom are of what others have told her? Here are some memories that I have of Kim, before and after her diagnosis, that show her vivacious and exceptionally generous heart:
- Clogging on top of a table during a college party
- Teaching everyone else to clog—even getting the shy ones up
- Being nice to that one geeky girl on the hall (that no one seemed to include) and inviting her out
- Putting up with the other girl on the hall with no social graces—who always talked about herself non-stop and was insanely needy. After the tenth time in a week of coming to Kim’s door to lay yet another burden on her, Kim would later giggle, shake her head and say, “Bless her heart” which I knew meant, “what a mess,” or “how pitiful.”
- Deciding to lose weight and jogging every day without fail, even in 90º F Georgia heat; I know, because she dragged me out with her.
- Feeding the girls who never seemed to have enough food, with her homemade roasts from home
- Downplaying her good grades to anyone who was struggling or insecure
- Bringing me home to visit with her loving family, not knowing how meaningful it was for me to see families like that, when mine has always been distant
- Forgiving me when I moved out without a word sophomore year and even bringing me a birthday present later, when I never told her why I did it. (Unlike our unfortunate friend who vented nonstop, I typically keep painful things inside and melted down after the trial of a friend’s murderer and catching my father cheating on my mother. … I retreated.)
- Later, wearing fun wigs, because why not? Why not have long curly hair one day and a short bob another?
- Throwing her “fake boob” across a room saying “I know you always wanted to grab it!”
- Taking me to my first line-dance club for a truly fun evening when I was sorely lacking in the fun department
- Forgiving good friends who drifted away during her cancer fight—explaining that she knew they were uncomfortable
I have never known anyone remotely like her in my life. Kim is truly missed.