Von St. James family golfing

As a society, we put a huge emphasis on our children’s “firsts”: baby’s first tooth, baby’s first steps. The first birthday, the first day of school. Oh my, how I remember that day with Lily! So many of her firsts were milestones simply for the fact that I was not supposed to be alive to see them. I treasured each of those firsts, and marked the occasions with pictures and videos. I even still have her first tooth somewhere.

This last year was full of another kind of firsts. The kind that many people don’t like to talk about. The kind that are observed quietly and in solitude. They’re all the firsts since my father died of renal carcinoma in February 2014. This last year was an eventful year, but had a shadow over it that I’ve still not completely shaken.

Every year, I look forward to the annual symposium on malignant mesothelioma put on by the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, but my father’s death coincided with the conference, so I was not able to attend. It was the first one I’ve missed in 4 years. The entire community sent their support and love, proving to me once again that the people in the meso community have some of the biggest hearts of any people I know.

That first, the loss of a parent, is one many others in the meso community also went through this year. We were able to console one another, cry with one another, and mark the anniversary of each month of the passing. Yes, it sounds morbid, I know, but taking a moment on the 28th of each month to pause and just remember is part of my healing process.

Heather's Awards

A lot of exciting firsts happened in 2014 as well. I received The Alan Reinstein Award at the 10th annual Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s conference -- my first award! It was an honor to receive it from the ADAO in recognition for all the advocacy and awareness work I do, and I know my dad was there with me. I was able to tell him about the award before he died, and he beamed with pride.

I’ll tell you a secret. My dad has always been the driving force behind what I do. Not only to make him proud, but to take something that devastated our family all those years ago, and turn it around into something good makes it all worth the fight.

There were many ordinary firsts as well, all marked by the absence of my dad, but his spirit is strong. I felt his presence in all I did. I did many podcasts and interviews, including an interview with a local TV station. After that interview aired, another local mesothelioma patient called the TV station to find me and we were able to meet. This year, once again, I was blessed to meet so many of you for the first time. Whether it be meeting at a conference or at a coffee shop, face to face interaction with people whose lives have been touched by meso is such a wonderful feeling. We encourage one another, compare notes and stories, and have an unspoken admiration for one another for beating the monster.

Then summer came and went, and my daughter turned 9. Her birthday always reminds me of how many years I’ve been fighting mesothelioma. My mom came out for her birthday celebration, and our family, along with some really close friends of our family, took my dad’s ashes and spread them at his favorite golf course. I was pleasantly surprised by what a good time it was; it was not somber and sad, which would have upset my dad. Instead, it was a really fun afternoon with some quiet reflection and laughter. Lily tried her hand at golf for the first time that day, and also got to drive the golf cart. We felt my dad with us the whole time, and knew he was smiling down on us all.

Heather at Miles for Meso

In the fall, Mesothelioma Awareness Day brought another first. I participated in my first Miles for Meso 5k in Alton, IL. It is an annual event and all the proceeds go to the ADAO. My mom and I usually meet in NYC for Meso Awareness Day, but we decided to change things up this year. I was tickled to find out I was the top individual fundraiser, getting over $1500 for the event! I had such a great time, getting to spend the weekend with other meso warriors, who are not only warriors, but dear friends as well.

Two weeks later, I went to Chicago for a regional symposium put on by the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation. This event brought another first, as I was able to meet other meso warriors who I have been in contact with over the years. Through the Foundation, we were able to finally get together and have some great times with each other. At the symposium, there were so many exciting advancements in mesothelioma treatment. I am anxious to see what the next few years will bring.

All in all, 2014 was a good year, albeit marred by the absence of the man who was such an important part of my life. Although I still grieve, and it hits me like a ton of bricks out of nowhere, the absence isn’t quite as palatable as it was a few months ago. I don’t think you ever get over the loss of a loved one, but you somehow get used to the feeling of emptiness that is always there.

Many people wonder how my mom is doing with the loss, and I will tell you she is amazing. Of course she misses him and wishes it were different, but her faith, like his, is strong enough to move mountains. Although there is a veil between worlds, she feels his presence with her daily. They were married 50 years and they celebrated their anniversary just a couple of weeks before he died. Love like that doesn’t stop simply because one passes. It stays on in everything you do. Just like I feel my dad with me, cheering me on every time I try something new and in all my firsts. His love for me is evident everywhere.

I’m sure there will be many more firsts in my life and I intend on marking each one with the attention it deserves. Good or bad, firsts need to happen because without them, we can’t move on. Happy 2015 to each and every one of you! I wish for you blessings and happiness in the coming year.