We rolled the mauve casket down the church aisle. When we arrived at the front door, the undertaker lifted his gaze to us. I imagine he had never seen this scenario — six female pallbearers.
He asked if we wanted to lift the casket and rest it in the hearse. Through our grief, we did, in a moment of unexpected physical strength.
Our dear friend Chana Garcia had died of ovarian cancer after a gallant 11-year fight. As the family planned a funeral, her dear cousin suggested that Chana’s girls be the pallbearers. After all, we were the ones who lifted her figuratively through her illness, and now she wanted us to do so literally. Chana, a strong advocate for girls and women in her personal and professional life, would have smiled approvingly and given her signature peace sign.
In early March, friends descended upon Chana’s hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, to pay tribute to her in a home-going celebration that included a funeral, burial, repast and after-party. Just weeks before, her girlfriends traveled from near and far to visit her in hospice, bringing her flowers one last time. We didn’t talk about death. She never wanted to with us.
I live in a place where I see black women show up for each other and for their community all the time. So it’s almost a cliché to say, we showed up for Chana in her final days.
Through the ups and downs of fighting cancer, Chana craved normalcy from friends, even as we worried. She preferred to hear about our problems, the latest book we had read, a Netflix recommendation or a “Coming to America” movie reference. Chana’s final words to me before I left the hospital were “Catch you next time.” We knew what went unspoken.
Chana’s death brings to mind one example after another of health care providers failing to listen to black women. Ovarian cancer is called the “silent killer” because it’s often detected late. I remember that in 2008, right before her diagnosis, Chana complained of stomach bloating. She wouldn’t accept a doctor’s answer that everything would be okay. She pressed and pressed.
“I wasn’t supposed to be a statistic of ovarian cancer. This is a disease that primarily affects white women over the age of 50. As a 33-year-old black woman, I didn’t fit the bill. I’m an example of what happens when the medical community engages in age- and race-based biases. I don’t think it occurred to my gynecologist, who’s also a young black woman, that ovarian cancer could happen to me,” Chana wrote in 2009 in Black Enterprise magazine, where she had been an editor, after having surgery and starting on the road to healing. “Black women are often diagnosed in the disease’s later stages and are twice as likely as white women to die from it. With an overall five-year survival rate of 46 percent, it’s easy to see why the outcomes are more often than not unfavorable.”
Chana continued to write, blog and speak about the importance of advocating for one’s own health. Her story makes me think about Serena Williams, who had serious post-birth complications and felt medical staff didn’t listen to her. Businesswoman and model Kim Porter complained to doctors about flu-like symptoms — and died at home in her sleep of pneumonia, an autopsy revealed.
When I gave birth for the first time, doctors didn’t believe me when I told them I was in labor. It turned out that I was, and they were wrong. But my profile didn’t fit the bill for them. They did not think a woman my advanced age who had never given birth would be in labor so quickly.
We — black women — have to continue to advocate for ourselves in the face of statistics that continue to show racial disparities in health outcomes. I learned that from Chana.
I miss my earthy, intellectual friend. The person I traveled around the world with, discussed the writings of Jhumpa Lahiri and Toni Morrison with, then cracked up with as we quoted lines from “Forrest Gump.” Chana could pick the best red wine and bourbon, mail you a gift because she thought it would be something you’d appreciate, and edit words with the precision of a tailor.
She is still with me, with us, because loved ones never leave. At the party following her funeral, we danced to the DJ’s songs as we recited her favorite Wu-Tang Clan lyrics, some of us with tears streaming down our faces.
Catch you next time, girlfriend.
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Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.