This is how I will always remember my friend, Madonna. She was so happy to show off her ring after her engagement this June. Suspecting that her boyfriend might propose on a trip to New York, I had sent my digital camera with her to capture this special moment. Gene Mercado proposed to her 17 months to the day after they began courting. They were planning for a January 12th wedding and I was going to be a bridesmaid.
But last Friday, Madonna passed away. She had battled breast cancer for six years. Actually, she had more than just battled cancer--she thrived in the midst of it. At her family funeral yesterday, her pastor said that during this time Madonna had been involved in every major outreach ministry of our church. A woman with a vibrant faith and a megawatt smile, she had an incredible passion for evangelism. In addition to all that she did in small group leadership and with our various international and evangelism outreach ministries, Madonna was also my assistant for the last several years of the single women's discipleship group. I don't know how she did it all, but I think one reason was that she resolutely kept her focus outward.
Madonna was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, shortly after her 33rd birthday. As a single woman, she was tempted to think this would diminish her marriage prospects. But as we all know, our evaluation and understanding is supremely inferior to God's.
Earlier this year, I asked her to share her testimony as the opening illustration for a message I gave titled, "The Walk of Faith." I was pleased then that she was willing to do so--especially as she had only been out of the hospital for a few weeks after serious surgery. Now I'm deeply grateful for it.
Reflecting on her initial diagnosis, Madonna said: "At the time, I was so ashamed of the diagnosis because I knew this would change many things about me. I made a choice to limit who knew about my health. My motives were mixed. I didn't want to be bombarded with questions. And also I was ashamed because I knew I was going to lose all of my hair. Although I had reconstruction, I knew my body was going to look different."
After chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Madonna's cancer seemed to be headed toward remission. Then in March, 2005, she found a lump in her other breast, which led to the discovery of metastasized cancer in some of her bones.
"I had hoped that if my cancer were to return, it would be after I was married," she said. "I dreaded the idea of making these decisions alone and to walk through this alone. Also I was ashamed of how my body was going to look afterwards because of the scars. But God taught me once again that He was everything and He gave me the humility to openly share my current health situation. He showed me His care for me and that He would never leave me nor forsake me."
The following January, Gene asked her into a courtship. Though they had been friends for several years, she was surprised by his interest. In fact, many of us were. (Gene, this is just one of the many reasons you are a man worthy of honor!) Just as it seemed that Madonna might beat this recurrence of cancer, her tumor markers went up in November. Two months later, after spending a chunk of time in the hospital, she stood before a group of single women and concluded her testimony with these haunting words:
"My battle with cancer continues. But God continues to astound me with His care. I cannot believe how faithful He has been to me. It is far too vast a list to enumerate all He has done. I often view my circumstances and wonder what this walk would look like without the Lord. Although my circumstances appear bleak and beyond understanding, I am assured of this: I know that my worst problem has been taken care of on the cross. I'm assured that even if the treatment doesn't work, I will be with my Lord and Savior in heaven one day, rejoicing at all He has done."
One of Madonna's final outings was to attend a friend's wedding seven hours away by car. She was weak and in pain, but determined to rejoice with those who rejoice. Her outward focus remained until the end.
Madonna was one of my best friends and I miss her already. I miss joking with her about dating a younger man. I miss our girlie outings for tea, pedicures, and classical concerts. I miss her candid counsel and can-do attitude. I miss worshiping with her in church. I miss bringing her Frosty shakes when she was in the hospital and uninterested in hospital food. I miss her evangelistic enthusiasm--I could always count on her to reach out to new people. I miss singing to '80s music with her. And I miss the way she took to ending our phone conversations over the past month or so: "Love you, Cee Cee."
It was the last thing she ever said to me. I look forward to hearing her say it once again when we are reunited in heaven. Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ, who took away the penalty for our sins--death--to offer us life everlasting.
(Photos, from top: Madonna showing off her engagement ring; Gene and Madonna in Central Park shortly before he proposed; in January, 2006, after they began courting; the last time I saw Madonna, at a mutual friend's wedding.)
A memorial service will take place next Wednesday, September 12th, at Covenant Life Church, where Madonna had been a faithful member for many years.