Cancer survivor finds comfort in Stations of the Cross

Alice Brown performs her adaptation of the 14 stations of the cross at St. Mary of the Woods Roman Catholic Church. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Ancient tradition, new look

Each of Brown's stations, presented by one of five readers, echoes the voice of someone touched by cancer: the husband who lost his wife, the oncology nurse awed by her patients, a woman who loses her hair.

All of the perspectives are based on real people who have inspired Brown or injected joy into her life. Brown wrote each part with the five readers in mind, including herself and her husband, Bill. He composed the musical refrain that follows each Station.

The original Stations of the Cross date to fourth century Jerusalem, when devotions were developed to commemorate the anniversary of Christ's crucifixion on Good Friday.

For some Catholics, the Stations conjure dismal childhood memories of parents dragging them to church, trudging around the worship space and struggling to recite the prayers tied to each step of Christ's brutal death march.

But many clergy and congregants have adapted the Stations to address social causes, appeal to certain audiences, or pay tribute to a loss. Some, such as the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, come alive as reenactments performed in period costumes.

The Rev. Edward Foley, a Capuchin priest who teaches liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union, said the ritual always held more purpose than simply retracing Christ's footsteps to the cross.

"One of the reasons why over the centuries people have contemplated the death and suffering of Jesus is to recognize that also in our own lives our suffering can be life-giving," he said.

A friend in need

Of course, it took a while for Brown to appreciate the gifts that cancer had laid on her doorstep: the unexpected kindness of acquaintances, a greater sense of purpose.

She had just begun to celebrate her recovery and breathe her first sighs of relief when her best friend Carol Lydecker, 56, complained of a mysterious pain in her hip. Within months, doctors linked it to advanced colon cancer.

Brown met Lydecker in 1979 when Lydecker choreographed a ballet for Brown's character in a production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Carousel." At the first rehearsal, they plopped on the gym floor in their leotards and chatted for an hour before remembering they had work to do.

"You know how you just like someone right away?" Brown said.

At one point, the two quit their jobs and drove across the country to Oregon. They returned to Chicago when they realized there were far fewer theater jobs in Oregon. After a while, they met their husbands and pursued different paths.

Brown, an actress, raised a family in the north suburbs. Lydecker, a dancer and choreographer, lived in the west suburbs and pursued her passion. They shared the stage only once, in a community theater production of "A Chorus Line." But they never grew apart.

The day after Brown's surgery in June 2009, Lydecker drove up from Forest Park for the afternoon. When Brown debated undergoing chemotherapy, Lydecker urged her to do it because she wanted her friend to stick around a while longer.

Looking back, though, Lydecker wishes she had called more often, the way Brown does for her now. Brown believes her cancer taught her to anticipate Lydecker's needs, including the longing to perform. Within a few months, Brown began to write her version of the Stations.

"The Stations were written with her in mind and for her to be a part of it," Brown said. "Carol may not be able to do pirouettes across the stage or sing a song ever again. But she's touching people's lives and feeling like her life has meaning more now even in these simple Stations of the Cross that she can share."

Taking up their cross

While chemotherapy and radiation wiped out Lydecker's colon cancer, the cancer already had spread to her lungs. It has now spread to a lymph node that has pressed and paralyzed one of her vocal cords.