Sorry it took me so long to post my speech for Maria O’Kane’s Memorial, but this week has been crazy with appointments and Christmas Concert. Here it is….
My name is Maria Pisani-Brown and Maria O’Kane was my friend from Gilda’s Club, a support network for cancer patients.
Maria meant a lot of things to a lot of people. To the people of Gilda’s club, she was an inspiration. Everyone in the Wellness group knew we were going to have a good time when Irish Maria showed up. She had a knack for making us laugh and brightening our mood.
Maria was quite candid and matter of fact about what her life was like as a cancer survivor and mother of two, one child being autistic. You couldn’t help but feel in awe about her outlook in life and wonderful attitude despite her illness and her hardships. Maria was a truly remarkable lady.
Maria had some very interesting character traits. She wasn’t one to mince words, which was something about her I so admired. She wasn’t afraid to tell you exactly what she thought, even if it did land her into trouble. I remember one time she told me a hilarious story about how she was travelling on the subway and saw a bald elderly oriental woman. Thinking the woman had cancer, Maria felt compelled to say something to her. “Don’t worry. I have cancer too. Things will get better”, Maria told her.
The lady looked her straight in the eye and said “What?”. Me no have cancer. Me believe in Buddha. Buddha squish cancer like a peanut.
Maria was mortified. “That’ll teach me for opening my big mouth,” she told me as I laughed uncontrollably at her tale. Maria was great at telling stories. She knew just how to take centre stage and captivate an audience with her beautiful Irish accent and her witty humour.
Another character trail I admired about Maria was that she was strong willed and persevered. Despite being told more than once she had 3 months to live, she kept ticking like an energizer bunny rabbit. You couldn’t help feel that Maria was invincible. The odds of surviving esophageal cancer to five years was less than 3 percent. The doctors at PMH eventually told her that she was the longest surviving esophageal cancer they ever had and they weren’t sure what to do with her.
Maria had a lot to say about doctors when she heard cancer patients tell her they only had a short time to live. “What do they know?”, she would say. “Are they God? Don’t listen to them.”
Although Maria didn’t often go to church, she was more catholic than many people who do. Maria would do anything for a person in need. She would give money or food to people in the street. If there was a child who needed a coat in the winter, she would provide one for them. And despite being so giving, she really had a hard time accepting help, because she was so fiercely independent. She genuinely cared for others and put others needs before her own. She always listened attentively to everyone and gave them good sound advice. She was a real mother hen.
If you happened to be one of her friends, Maria had a strange way of making you feel protected. She was fiercely loyal too. One day I had an appointment with a doctor who I call the Dragon Lady. Maria knew how much I dreaded seeing this woman and offered to come with me. That was the first time I actually felt comfortable talking to the Dragon Lady because I knew that if she started to roll her eyes at me when I asked questions, then Maria would have her head on a silver platter. There Maria was, bald and beautiful, starring her down like a Doberman ready to pounce. I usually left my appointments with the Dragon Lady in tears, but not this time. I really felt good when Maria came with me. It made the time go by faster and we had so much fun talking together. I also really admired her for not caring about what people thought about her bald head. She would show it off, tumour and all. I don’t know many people who would have the guts to do that.
Another trait I so loved about Maria was that she encouraged people to follow their dreams. I talked to her about going to Paris and painting in Monet’s garden and the next thing I knew, I had a plane ticket and was rearing to go. Maria encouraged me to travel to France over the summer and I did just that. She also kept pushing me to write stories and get a blog up and running because she believed in me as a writer. I think I changed and became a much better person as a result of knowing Maria. She inspired me to take chances and do the things I really wanted to do in life which I don’t think I would have without her. Maria wasn’t afraid to live life to the fullest and neither should we.
Although Maria is not here with us in body, I believe she is here with us in spirit…and we just have to look for the signs. I received my sign from her shortly after I posted a comment and photo of her on her Facebook page. It photo was taken in the spring from when we went to St. Anne’s Spa for a massage and some really great food. Maria had often talked about going back there one day. Whenever I saw Maria, the first thing she would always ask me was “How are you doing?” Lately, the answer has been, “My feet are burning from the chemo treatment I’m on”. She would just shake her head. Maria loved to have her feet massaged and didn’t like the side effects I was having.
Shortly after I posted that picture of Maria at St. Anne’s Spa, I went to open up my mail. That’s when I found a letter from St Anne’s Spa congratulating me for winning a free Caribbean Rejuvenation Foot Massage. I laughed and thanked Maria for thinking about me and my feet. I felt like I had just received confirmation that she was alright, and she was still looking out for me.
And I bet if you look hard enough, you too will also find signs that she is looking out for you.
I miss you my friend, but am sure we will meet again. I will forever remember her telling me and I quote… “Those damn Catholics. If they truly believed in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, then why the hell are they so afraid of dying?