JoEllen Mancari

10 days before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my grandmother JoEllen passed away unexpectedly. This is another one of those moments I talked about in my first post-a moment that will forever be imprinted in my mind.  And maybe not so much in an image, though I will always remember exactly where I was when we got the phonecall, and how the greyness of the clouds outside our 22nd floor hotel room window at the Hilton had shifted from neutral to heavy and foreboding in a matter of seconds.  My mother and I were in Chicago that week- I was able to schedule a voice lesson with my assigned voice teacher at Roosevelt, the incredible Kurt Link, and I was super excited. My voice lesson was on Tuesday, March 29th, and we were flying home the following morning. I left my lesson beaming.  Kurt told me that he heard a warmer, more lyric quality in my sound, which excited me, especially because I was tired of trying to get my voice to sing the chirpy-bird runny stuff (that’s the way I describe what is known to the vocal world as “coloratura repertoire”). I have always felt more personally connected to the music of larger roles like Mimi from La Boheme, Pamina from Die Zauberflote, Violetta from La Traviata (although that role is like a coloratura in the first half and a full lyric in the rest so… I guess it’s important to be able to do both. Sigh. It also just occurred to me that all of the characters I’m drawn to in opera are the ones who are depressed, and/or end up dieing… Good thing therapy is on deck this week…and probably for the next 20 years…) In any case, I was happy to hear that he heard my voice heading in that direction. After the lesson, my mom and I went to lunch at a vegan cafe/grocery store called “Kramers”, which was going to be my new grocery store come fall 2016 (unfortunately the rat bastard in my breast is keeping me from my new grocery store for another year… Thank god for Loris natural foods right here at home though…). after our delicious lunch of Indian inspired tofu and green juice, we went back to our hotel room and napped…. I kept getting bouts of vertigo and ringing in my ears, which had never happened to me before.  That evening, my grandmother called my mom, and her voice sounded weathered and tired.  She was in a lot of pain, and she had asked my mom if we were home yet, to which my mom replied, “No ma, we’ll be home tomorrow night” “Oh, okay”. I could almost hear the guilt in my mother’s voice when she told her we weren’t home yet. I knew it was hard for my mom to be away and hear her mother’s tired voice obviously in pain on the other end of the phone. They chit-chatted (is that a word?) some more, she asked about how my lesson went.  The ache and fatigue was audible in her voice as she spoke to my mother, which made me feel sad.  The conversation ended shortly after “Well call me when you land tomorrow” (Still bein’ a mother till the very end!). If I had known that this night was to be her last night on earth, I would have asked to talk to her. I am still sick about this.

We went to bed early that night. But strangely, both my mom and I were wide awake and restless at around 3am.  To this day, I believe that we were awake then because we knew on some spiritual level that she was passing. When we arrived at home, we found out that we weren’t the only ones in the family tossing and turning around 3 am…. In all of the sadness, this was somehow comforting, it was as if our souls were all with her as she crossed over from our dimension to the next.

My grandmother was extremely selfless, almost to a fault. Always there to lend a hand or an ear (you just had to make sure it was her good ear). She wanted nothing more than to see me continuing my schooling in my passion, and she was planning on supporting me throughout the process through unlimited encouragement as well as financial support. One of the last moments I had with her, I was preparing to leave for another audition at Bard outside of New York City. I came by one afternoon to visit. I felt compelled to sing one of my audition pieces for her. It was in French, and it was an art song, which basically means it tells a story. Before I sang it, I explained the story to her. She looked at me with her eyes so wide, “I had no idea there was so much to singing! I thought you just sang words, I had no idea you knew what they meant!”. I walked over to her and kissed her cheek after she said that. It was just so damn cute. I said, “Well, yes gram, in order to really move people, you have to know what you’re singing about!” and she said “Oh, well, yes, that makes sense”. That’s another one of those memories I will keep forever. That moment evoked an image in my head of my grandma as a young girl… She was just so innocent and precious and child-like to me then. I felt so close to her that day. And of course after I sang for her, she was smiling so big WITHOUT her hand in front of her mouth (despite her chipped front tooth that was a tremendous source of embarrassment and shame to her… she was getting it repaired-root canal galore-because “THERES NO WAY IN HELL I’M GETTING DENTURES, I’M LEAVING THIS EARTH WITH MY OWN TEETH”, despite her dentists recommendation). I loved that smile, missing teeth or not. And she did leave this earth with her own teeth. God bless her fierce and fiery, warm and loving, innocent and precious soul.

I don’t really want to talk about getting the phone call on March 30th, the way time was elastic and slippery and still all at once, my mother and I, numb, schlepping our heavy luggage and heavier hearts from hotel to shuttle, from shuttle to airport, trying to find an earlier flight home to no avail.

What I do want to share is that I have absolutely felt her presence since my diagnosis. I am 100% certain that she is walking this journey with me.  The first thing I’ll share is that my original breast doctor was not my cup of tea. We will call this person Doctor Voldemort. I promptly switched from Doctor Voldemort’s care after having 2 appointments. Sidenote: If you or anyone you know is going through a tricky medical situation, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a medical team that you are completely comfortable with. I am beyond glad that I made the switch. Doctor Joel Yellin (sounds a lot like JoEllen, huh?) is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met in my whole life. He calls me personally to inform me of my test results, spends over 2 hours with me in appointments, has given me his personal cell phone number… And in this shitty situation, warmth and compassion is extremely important to me. It’s actually quite important to me shit-storm, or not.

The week following my diagnosis, I decided to leave my house (for something other than a doctors appointment).  That was a monumentally huge sign of progress. I was choosing life, as opposed to choosing existence (if you could even call it that) in my nest of blankets and snotty tissues on the couch. My mom and I went to the Breast Cancer Coalition on University Ave downtown. I spoke with some amazing women there. This place is incredible. It provides so many services to the patients and families of people with breast cancer like yoga, meditation, lunch sessions, lecture series, information seminars, and the list goes on. I feel lucky to live so close to such a valuable support system in my recovery, surrounded by so many strong women who have walked their own version of this cancer journey (that’s another thing I’m learning-no two women’s experience with breast cancer is exactly the same, though there are many foundational similarities).  After my first visit, I went home with a gigantic gift bag filled with several books on breast cancer and resources to consult on the journey, a beautiful new journal, an assortment of teas, a Wegmans gift card (and I know I’m still forgetting things…).  Conveniently, right next door to the coalition is a juice bar (nope, not steroids, the raw fruit and vegetable kind) where I’ve met some beautiful and inspiring women who in fact all work behind the counter. The owner is one of the most warm and friendly people I’ve EVER  encountered, always there to share a laugh, suggest a recipe book, give a hug. One of the other workers sent me home with a beautiful salt lamp, a raw vegan recipe bible, and a salad spinner. Actually, all of the women at Just Juice 4 Life are kindhearted and in a word, wonderful. Since the diagnosis, I’ve cried and sobbed and cursed and dripped snotty tears all over this place (not quite literally), and all of these women have unflinchingly wrapped their arms around me. I am so in awe of the kindness I’m surrounded by every time I walk in the door. Two of these women at the juice bar have had/are currently having their own intimate experiences with cancer. One of the juice-makers is a 19 year old girl with a rare form of liver cancer (diagnosed at age 16), and the other is a 27 year old woman who was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer (never smoked a day in her life) and beat it holistically (with surgery). Talk about inspiring. These two women have given me so much hope. When I first met them, it was shocking for me to see that they were both still living their lives “normally”. They had jobs, they had social lives, they were active, they made juice, they smiled, they laughed. Given the place of despair I had been in, witnessing this was something that almost made me have to rub my eyes and pinch myself to be sure that what I was seeing was real. They were happy. They expressed gratitude. It was not a mistake that I met these women.

Initially, in my appointments where chemotherapy was discussed, my whole body would tense, and I would feel physical pain in my abdomen.  I had several nightmares where I was all “hooked up” and ready to start chemo, and then multiple tornadoes would appear from all corners of the sky, making a direct path for the hospital. Needless to say, the idea of chemotherapy has felt like a violation to my spirit from the beginning. Everything in my whole being has been telling me no from the get-go. So these next couple of events really gave me a lot of hope in my situation. And I’m holding onto that hope. Every. Single. Day.

The 27 year old tongue cancer THRIVER introduced me to one of her friends who had healed herself from breast cancer with surgery and a holistic approach, and she has been 10 years cancer-free. When we first met (at the juice bar, my new Turf), this remarkable woman greeted me with a gigantic hug and a gift. She handed the bag to me and said, “I don’t know why I was compelled to bring this to you today, but I was. I was getting ready for church and something just told me that I needed to give this to you, in particular. This was given to me by someone very close to me when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and for some reason, I felt like I needed to bring it to you. And you will pass it along to someone else someday. I know you will.” Before I even opened the bag, my mother and I were already teary and then I just about lost it when I pulled the gift out.  It was a beautiful angel. Not anything too crazy, right? Unless you knew my grandma. JoEllen had angel decor EVERYWHERE. Precious moments Angels, Willow Tree Angels, Lennox Angels, No-Name Angels. You name the angel, JoEllen probably had it. And the fact that this wonderful cancer-surviving woman went the route I envisioned for myself from the beginning and has been cancer free for 10 years was a HUGE source of hope for me.  Oh yeah, and her cancer’s pathology breakdown was the same as mine- ER/PR+, HER2-.

To top that all off, later that week, at my cousin Mark’s house, he suggested I pick some oracle cards (cards by Doreen Virtue). The cards I chose that night were: Guardian Angel, Transformation, Spiritual Growth, and Emerging.

The cards came with a book that further explained the meaning of each card. First, my Guardian Angels were guiding me through my OWN intuition, and that they would not steer me wrong. Second, my current situation is going to be a source of a significant transformation within me. Third, through my struggle, I will obtain a tremendous amount of spiritual growth and my faith will be strengthened, and Fourth, my experiences will help me to emerge into my most authentic, wisest self, and my wisest self is destined to help others.


I’m going to let all of that digest.


Bottom line: Grandma Jo, I know you’re with me. (And you better make sure they give me some fun drugs before surgery on Friday!) I love you forever. And I thank you for all of the ways you have blessed and continue to bless my world. I know you’ll be with me (and Joel Yellin!) in surgery this Friday.

2 thoughts on “JoEllen Mancari

  1. How precious to have loved so dearly and to be loved so completely. I still miss the the warm and loving hugs my grandmother gave me and she has been gone for years. Her memory is still so sweet.


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