i only spent one day with christee dugan, but i will miss her every day for the rest of my life.
she was 35 years old, lived in a suburb of austin, texas, married to her childhood sweetheart with three children (kaitlyn – 15, kameron – 8, kaleb – 5) and was told after beating triple negative invasive inflammatory stage 3c breast cancer, that she also was being diagnosed with stage 4 spinal carcinomatous meningitis and given only months to live. my good friend, chrystal called me and told me her story (they lived in the same neighborhood). she also told me that a group of people that loved christee wanted to make one of the requests on her self-made “bucket list” come true… photographing her and her daughter picking out a wedding dress. it was to be an experience of joy, not sadness (and christee wouldn’t have had it any other way). kaitlyn wanted the experience every little girl dreams about… the giddy excitement of picking an armful of dresses, trying each one on, lacing up the backs and emerging from the fitting room each time just to see the proud look on her mother’s face and the look that tells her when she had found “the dress”. christee’s friends donated airline miles for me to fly, a hotel room for me to stay in and money towards the gift of albums and prints for each of christee’s children. i flew into austin on a wednesday night and i did not sleep one minute.
i met christee on thursday morning. i had been praying my entire trip for strength not to say the wrong thing, not to be in the way of this emotional moment between her and her daughter, to be able to tell their story through photographs in a way that showcased the joy of the moment and the beauty of christee’s love for her daughter… and the moment i walked into their home i was greeted by christee’s arms wrapped around me. immediately, i felt that jesus was present in that place. she held me for a few moments and just seemed overwhelmed. full of passion and determination to make the day beautiful despite the reality of what we were going to do. christee was a firecracker… passionate and strongwilled and selfless. and somehow in the midst of all of that the best way to describe her is to say she just felt like HOME. i spent all day with christee, kaitlyn, and christee’s mother, bonnie, driving around town doing normal errands and going to the bridal gown shop. christee was in a lot of pain but we talked a lot in the car and some of the most profound things that have stayed with me about that day were the most simple ones. christee’s mom was driving and christee was in the passenger seat. i was sitting behind christee and i could see her face in the right rearview mirror all throughout the trip. she would be talking passionately about something and close her eyes off and on in the car (one of the many side effects from the heavy meds she was on) but through the pain, she would be smiling. we talked about how she had been approaching life since hearing her prognosis and she told me, “the other day we were driving home and we saw an terrible car accident with multiple fatalities and all i could thing was how awful it was that those people who had passed didn’t get the blessing of being able to tell their loved ones good bye. i am so blessed to know already and so we live every day in the moment together. we don’t watch t.v., we laugh, we play, we live life together. the kids sleep with me in my bed and we just hold each other. i am ready to be with jesus and until he is ready to bring me home, i will delight in every day with my children and the love of my life.” all throughout the day she was not bothered by the little annoyances of life and when she spoke she had a reason. she was humorous and optimistic. she was interested in my heart. she asked questions that meant something. she knew her time was short and she didn’t want to waste a bit of it with anything meaningless. she hugged tightly as if it could be for the last time. and for her and me, it was. christee got very ill and i was not able to see her again and i had to get on the plane to come home. i missed her the second i left her. she was diagnosed with her cancer on september 11th, 2009 and was buried on september 11th, 2010. i was not able to make it to her funeral but everyone (as ordered by christee) was to wear bright, happy colors as she wanted to it be a celebration of her life. joyful songs were sung, everyone who attended pasted a jewel onto her casket and many stories were told that only affirmed that christee was, throughout all her life, just as wonderful in all the years leading up to her diagnosis as she was when i met her toward the end. i have heard her called an angel by many of her friends and i can say i have never seen a face that more resembled Jesus to me than hers. i think of her soft arms when i hug my children before bed. i think of her sweetly high-pitched voice when i hear my gracie singing to her dollies in her room. i think of her pink chipped toenail polish when i put on my shoes every morning. but i think of her hands the most. a good friend of christee’s wrote just before she passed, “i was in the presence of one of God’s angels this morning. christee, thank you for spending some of the precious time you have left with me and letting me hold your hands. hands that took your sweet husband’s name, hands that rocked your babies to sleep, and hands that will now greet our wonderful Lord and Savior with open arms.”
just before i left the dugan’s house on thursday evening, christee was resting and i was hanging out with the kids in the house. i found a little plaque that christee’s daughter told me was given to her during her first fight with cancer and it said this: ”trust your strength. pick more wildflowers. surrender your fear. find beauty in the small. unleash your joy. teach kindness. celebrate the gift of today. keep being brave.” christee lived each of her last days, and even all the days before those by those words. she had divine strength. she adored sunflowers. she had no fear of death. she found beauty in every tiny bit of creation. joy and kindness dripped from her every word. continually, she celebrated the day she was given. and she kept being brave until the last moment. she can finally rest and say, “i have fought the good fight, i have finished the race, i have kept the faith.” 2 timothy 4:7
just a few images from the day i spent with her and her children. even in the midst of the pain they were all feeling, they had joy. it was a beautiful thing and an honor to have lived life with them, even for that one day.